Tactics, Practical and Imagined

Summer is over; time to head back into the classroom – at least in my neck of the woods. Others of you may still be enjoying a much-needed holiday; still others may already be hard at work. Wherever you are in the cycle, though, no doubt you’re wondering where the summer went, and where you’ll find the time to do all the stuff looming up on the horizon.

 

What I did on my summer vacation: glamour shots of the Anglesey coast in northern Wales. Bye, summer…

At the start of last (winter) term I reflected in this space on planning my upcoming semester. I can report that the exercise I trialed and discussed (and which I got from academic coach Jo Van Every) was extremely useful in keeping me organized, on track, and also kind to myself as January slushed into February and slip-slid into March. (If you missed that post, click here.)

This time, I’m offering something different: a list of survival tactics.

Below, you’ll find another bit of swag from my newly-published issue of Research in Drama Education – the full text of a feature I co-authored with Sharon L. Green, Diana Damian Martin, Clara Nizard, Theron Schmidt, and Max Schulman, all of whom participated in the issue-themed roundtable I held (with Diana, Katherine Low, Rebecca Hayes Laughton, and Sylvan Baker) at ASTR last November. Following the text, there’s a link to the published article on the RiDE website, free to the first fifty who click.

This feature is called “Tactics: Practical and Imagined” and it distills in deliberately bite-sized form the core of the issue’s goal: to share with one another proven practical ideas, as well as just-yet-maybe notions, for getting through it all each day – and doing better by ourselves, our colleagues, and our students in the process.

Our collected tactics are personal and may often seem quite small in scope, but rest assured they are in no way designed to let our institutions or their increasingly commercialized cultures off the hook. What they are is realistic in their avowal that it’s often the day-to-day that breaks us – and therefore the day-to-day that needs to be made better as we struggle onward to change the future of our workplaces.

Please enjoy, pass along – and if you want a published copy, but the free download link has stopped working, just email me directly at ksolga@uwo.ca.

Solidarity!

Kim

***

Clara, thinking about care… especially of students.

Step away from commitments to rest. Keep the pot as close as possible to the stove-top (become feminist cooks). Find your ‘equity and diversity crew’. Babysit each other’s kids when away for work. Become a mentor. Pay students in training or cash. Have a citation policy in your research. Recommend books and events. Circulate resources. Go to events together. Put care at the front of your practice. Co-create assignments with students. Design a feedback model when collaborating.  Be wrong. Be Out. Drop-in ‘queer’ as often as possible. Have 1:1 meetings. Facilitate access to support. Be powered by joy. Talk about Weinstein. Discuss larger issues. Work with compassion. Make room for emotions. Be personal. Be reflexive. Experiment with forms. Craft alternative methodologies. Account for feelings. Allow people to enter discussion from a place of feeling. Have an open-door policy. Sit with people when they book mental health appointments. Walk people to their mental health appointments. Archive what you do. Share your archives. Make resources open-access. Build alliances. Curate feminist networks. Pass around tools. Pass around power. Develop feminist ears. Listen for the silence (harassment work). Do not stay in a job that personally damages you. Self-care is warfare. Transform the organisation that employs you. Make banners. Put up posters. Make theory work for you. Theory is a tool. Take theory seriously. Make better tables. Hang laundry outside. Organise Long Tables. Porch-sit.

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Images from our inaugural issue-themed workshop, at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in December 2017, are scattered throughout the published version of this feature; I include a few here. In this one, the brilliant Gary Anderson gives his keynote in his hotel room near Central (for good reason – trust me!).

Sharon, thinking about interdisciplinary collaborations.

How to bring others to the table?

Invite them. Meet them on their turf. Invite them early.

Spend time learning about what matters to them. Gauge their interest first, then invite them to participate in whatever way is meaningful for them (be prepared that this may be different than you expect).

Take someone to coffee and learn about their work and interests; ask them to be involved in something small and low stakes/low prep then use this as an opportunity to gauge continued, more in-depth collaborative interest.

Find and meet staff stakeholder, show them how collaboration/participation with your project will help meet their own goals.

Expect to spend a lot of time learning, cultivating new relationships, and drinking coffee.

Walk across campus and see what life is like from a new point of view.

Cultivate mutually beneficial relationships with both junior and senior colleagues; expect to be challenged, to change course, to learn new stuff.

Attend talks/lectures/events organized by other departments/colleagues, then stay after the talk to meet those colleagues and thank them for the event; do the same for student events.

Send an email note of thanks to a colleague for an event that you particularly enjoyed – tell them why it mattered to you.

Find out where the money is and how to get it to support your work. And when you get it, prioritize paying people for their labour.

Invite stakeholders or potential future collaborators to apply with you for funding a project; ask them how you and your work can also support their goals.

Pay attention to who is sitting at the table with you and who isn’t. Ask yourself how you can shift structures to be more inclusive if you don’t see and hear a diversity of ideas, points of view, and experiences.

Offer something concrete, if possible, to collaborators in return: guest talk in a class, give a backstage tour of an upcoming production, offer coaching a performance-based exercise in a non-performance class, or plan a joint field trip.

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Our amazing student/colleague Rebecca Hayes Laughton, who kept a visual record of the Central symposium for us, December 2017.

Kim, thinking about decolonizing teaching.

Be open and transparent with students at the beginning of each semester about your own goals, about the amount of work teaching is, about how you negotiate its labour – let them see you as a worker, not just a professor.

reconfigure your classroom space a few times in a few different ways so that everyone in the room can experience it physically from another point of view (including yours).

be willing to say you don’t know the answer; be willing to ask everyone to help you try to find the answer.

Invite colleagues to go out for coffee and talk about teaching.

stop colleagues in the hall or drop into colleagues’ office to ask how their classes are going.

visit the teaching centre on your campus to get connected to other colleagues in other disciplines who are interested in the questions you have about teaching.

Offer to speak with your graduate students about teaching issues and challenges, even if they are not your assigned TA.

check in with your graduate students about their wellbeing at key points in the semester.

set limits on the time you will spend on teaching tasks each week (prepping, marking, responding to emails) and try logging these limits in your calendar.

AND: If you feel the urge to bypass these limits, remind yourself that GOOD ENOUGH is good enough!

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One of many visual documents of our labour, December 2017.

Diana, thinking about working across contexts (between academia the wider cultural sector).

share the resources where possible to the benefit of those outside of the institution whose labour is fundamental to its pedagogical and research cultures. place pressure on transparency of pay and be aware that the university upholds hierarchies of knowledge – do not participate in that. work in alliance to change structures that do not foster multiple routes, forms and ways of work of academic practice. invite those who are critical and do not be defensive. circulate resources. be open with students, and do not traffic in narratives that are harmful or reductive. be an ally to colleagues and to students. make space for other ways of working. strive for plurality. share toolkits and knowledge. talk about failures and be accountable. name and make space for collaborators, especially those whose work is outside academia and who often get left out. learn ways and modes of listening; pay attention to where you are. make a case for knowledge-production as a shared endeavour. keep your door open. build alliances. work collectively. unpack affects and how they shape you and others – think about how they might be in the space differently. organise spaces for conversation. share opportunities and share your knowledge about processes, institutional jargon and structures, which are often impenetrable for students, early career researchers, and cultural workers on the outside.

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Rachel Hann claims her space, as Kat Low mugs in the background, December 2017.

Max, asking: how can we use first-year “intro to uni” courses to help reposition or reorient theatre studies (discipline, department, mission) within the institution, and within the community, in a productive way? 

There are inherent skills and capacities within theatre studies that make it an effective and nimble player on campus. It is especially in its practical and “applied” capacities that theatre can work toward larger campus-wide change by providing 1) opportunity and tools for dialogue, 2) general dissemination of information, 3) empathetic and embodied learning. How might we target moments of campus or community gathering as places where those skills (through Boalian exercises, ensemble creation, applied theatre exercises) can be of most use? Rather than focusing on specific courses or creating events in order to enact these practices, what curricular or administrative instances already exist that might benefit from our involvement?

An example. Many universities have a required course for incoming freshmen that act as an introduction to campus life as well as an introduction to some kind of critical thinking that they will use in their college careers. I wonder: how unified are these gateway courses across academia? At my university these courses are primarily team-taught pet projects with intriguing titles. But perhaps there is a way to strategically use these courses as a way of setting standards for discourse on campus.

“Intro-to-uni” classes are often focused on negotiating campus life, along with the development of skills necessary for success at the university more broadly. Imagine, then, a curriculum component or tool focused on embodiment and dialogue that was inserted into all freshman gateway courses? Imagine a group of thirty freshmen exploring concepts of diversity, independence, depression, STEAM vs STEM, and more through Boalian sculpting or curated improvisations.

The eventual (perhaps utopian) idea is that every student on campus will then have engaged in a version of an applied theatre studies curriculum, and developed basic tools of embodiment and observation, as core to their learning alongside standard Socratic dialogue or didactic practice. Perhaps, too, they will discover the power of the former early, and know that it is okay to jump in, make noise, stand up, step back, and breath.

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Theron, imagining the classroom as social practice.

Imagine the classroom as social practice. Consider that this class is not separate from the power relations we study but is an instance of them. Ask everyone to read Jo Freeman’s ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness’. De-invisibilize the structures we are working with and within. Model different ways of thinking, sharing, responding, making decisions. Work in silent collaboration. Take an unguided walk together. Allow five minutes of uninterrupted speech from everyone, not just those used to talking. Cultivate active listening from everyone, not just those used to being quiet. Let silence be equally valued as a form of expression. Take turns demonstrating non-directive leadership, so everyone gets a go. Try out preferential voting systems rather than binary ones. Borrow from histories of consensus-based processes. Remember that ‘formal consensus works best in an atmosphere in which conflict is encouraged, supported, and resolved cooperatively with respect, nonviolence, and creativity’ (www.ic.org/wiki/conflict-consensus/). Adopt principles from Open Space, such as: whoever is here are the right people; or, if you’re not getting or contributing something it is your responsibility to move to a conversation where you are – and if such a conversation doesn’t yet exist then it is up to you to start it. Craft neutral questions, or even try avoiding questions at all. Value the richness of individual experience and non-verbal knowledge. Explore resiliency as an anti-individualist practice. Use terms like ‘anti-racism’, ‘emotional labour’, ‘hidden curriculum’, and ‘intentional community’ so they become part of ordinary conversation.  Don’t mistake any structure for an ideal one, but compare the affordances of each, its inclusions and exclusions, its dramaturgy and its politics.

And then do the same in the department meeting. And then at the university council. When it looks less like a boardroom, it will act less like one, too.

[Read four more bite-size tacticals here. Link not working? Email me!]

 

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Welcome to The Activist Classroom 2.0

When I began writing this blog in March 2013, I hoped it would do something I very much needed at the time: create some breathing room.

I had moved countries and jobs, and my new professional responsibilities had crowded out much of the space I needed for thinking through my teaching, beyond the nuts and bolts of weekly prep and marking. I started The Activist Classroom as a place where I could simply reflect: on what was going well, or poorly; on moments of success and failure; on tools I’d discovered that might help make my practice better. The writing helped me sleep at night.

After some early and spectacular teaching pratfalls – bawling my face off in front of a room of startled first-year English students at Dalhousie in 1997 remains, truly, my finest teaching hour – I had developed a thick(ish) skin and a capacity for openness and transparency. And I’d long since learned that the quickest way to escape a pedagogical pickle was to be honest about the problem – with my students, with my colleagues, and with myself – and then to invite feedback. The blog’s voice developed from my natural tendency to overshare in public, coupled with my earnest willingness to expose my shortcomings in the service of learning.

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The blog’s focus, though, always owed its origins to my time as a postdoctoral fellow in the Performance as a Public Practice stream at the University of Texas at Austin. PPP advocates performance as a tool for shaping social change and activating thoughtful, critical citizenship; it put performance as a means, and social activism as a goal, together for me at the beginning of my life as a full-time teacher. To this day I believe that teaching is a performance of citizenship, one in which instructors model intellectual curiosity, open-minded and collaborative knowledge-building, and encourage students to understand learning as an investment in a shared, equitable future. It is what my scholarly mentor at Austin (and fellow feminist blogger) Jill Dolan might call an especially powerful utopian performative.

Lately, though, I have found myself running a bit empty. While the blog remains a cherished reflection space for me, I’ve also become weary of the labour of finding new ways to say many of the same things I’ve already said. And I’ve grown a bit sick of my own voice, truthfully; I am only one teacher, and my perspective, however hard I work to bring other voices into my writing here, dominates. This isn’t how any good classroom should work: classrooms are at their best when they are collaborative spaces.

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Cut to the end of June. Kelsey Blair – women’s basketball guru, young adult author, newly minted SFU PhD incoming postdoctoral fellow at McGill University – grabs me out of the post-luncheon fray during the annual conference of the Canadian Association for Theatre Research. Kelsey tells me how much she admires the blog – a kindness I have appreciated from so many grad student and early career readers, thank you! – and then asks me:

Have you ever considered opening the blog up to other voices?

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Friends, have I ever!

Fast forward to high summer. Kelsey has agreed to take on the proper job of Activist Classroom curator and co-producer; we’ve spent time in person (with donuts) and on Skype (with coffee) planning and visioning a reboot of this much-cherished (for both of us) space. We’ve developed a mandate for The Activist Classroom under renovation; it captures what we both feel is most worth holding onto as we move forward in collaboration.

Here it is.

What does it mean to be a human being standing in front of a classroom, performing? 

How do the things that happen inside our classrooms affect our lives outside the classroom? How does our teaching teaching practice participate in, affect, and even shape, public discourse? 

What is an activist classroom and why should we strive to create one?

The Activist Classroom is a teaching commons populated by a diverse community of curators, contributors, and readers.

We understand pedagogy to be a process, an always-shifting practice that requires regular thinking through and tending; we recognize teachers to be committed, creative professionals, but also imperfect human beings who likewise need regular care, tending, and support.

The site began in 2013 as a blog about pedagogy and performance; today, the AC retains its core emphasis on the active, inherently theatrical elements of teaching practice. We understand post-secondary teaching as an essential form of public performance, in which teachers and students work together to figure out the script, devise a better plot, and work through the challenges that collaborative knowledge-making inevitably creates.

Our content includes accessible, free, and above all honest responses to the challenges and joys of teaching. Our goal is to provide a wide range of tools and possible solutions for supporting teaching practice, and to advance our understanding about what teaching accomplishes in and beyond our classrooms.

We welcome contributions in a variety of formats and lengths, from short essays and interviews, to videos, to memes and gifs.

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The shift from single-author blog to teaching commons will take place under Kelsey’s curation over the next few months. We aim to be as inclusive and equitable as possible in building this new common space, and we are excited to share contributions from teachers across the career spectrum, teachers both inside and beyond academic theatre and performance studies, and teachers whose embodied experiences represent a range of ways of looking at and shaping the future of our shared learning endeavours.

My voice will recede as the commons evolves, though I will remain a regular (if less frequent) contributor. I’m thankful to have had so much time, space, and opportunity over the last six years to share thoughts on my practice in this space, and I’m excited to discover and learn from our new community members.

Let The Activist Classroom 2.0 take shape!

With gratitude to you all for reading,

Kim

What is experiential learning? Part two: snapshots from experiencing differently

Two posts ago, I spent some time thinking about the paradox of “Experiential Learning” (capital E, capital L!) as a commodity in the neoliberal university, and I proposed an alternative way of thinking about the experiential in relationship to teaching and learning. In this post, I put that thinking into practice with a few snapshots of my recent trip to the CATR (Canadian Association for Theatre Research) annual conference at the University of British Columbia.

First, though, a brief digression in service of some theory.

In that earlier post, I talk in particular about the difference between “experience” as a noun (a thing to buy, to have, to collect, to seek out), and “experience” as a verb – a “learning by doing”. In (re)imagining learning as “experiencing”, I am taking a cue from the 20th century director and acting teacher Konstantin Stanislavsky, for whom the practice of experiencing was central to the development of the technique (sometimes called emotional realism) associated with his legacy. As Sharon Carnicke argues in her landmark book Stanislavsky in Focus (2nd edition, 2008, esp pp 129-47), “experiencing” is a way that an actor prepares and trains (by living and observing life outside the theatre in thick detail); it is also essential to that actor’s work on stage, as they recreate their thick observations in the making of a role and experience them all over again. This is what is sometimes called “living the part”.

As Carnicke explains, though, the Russian term for experiencing (perezhivanie) is more complex than the latter phrase can capture, and for Stanislavsky it connoted much more than just mimetic realism. Stanislavsky imagines actors to be co-creators – along with playwrights and directors – in shaping character, and experiencing is what underpins their creative labour. Experiencing also roots his argument (in “Perspective of the actor and the role”, in An Actor’s Work, trans. Benedetti) that actors operate inside a double optic on stage, where they live the moment-to-moment of their characters, but also remain aware in each of those moments of a character’s larger arc, context, and the story’s eventual end.

“Experiencing” for Stanislavsky, then, is a doing that includes inhabiting another’s story while recognizing and reckoning with that other story’s context and circumstances – which will be different from one’s own. At the same time one hold’s one’s own lived experiences in the world up to careful scrutiny in order to use them as a creative tool in the service of building a role. Finally, one experiences all of these things – the life, the character, and the context – at the same time on stage, and negotiates amongst them.

What I love about Stanislavsky’s model of experiencing is its very doubled quality: that to have an experience is not to hold it but to question it, to see it from the perspective of the immediate moment but also through the crucial wider lens of context, implications – and yes, potential outcomes. To experience is to question the thing itself; to experience is to encounter difference; and to experience is to create in collaboration with others.

Now, with this framework in mind, those promised snapshots.

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Performing Towards Youth at Streetcar Crowsnest in Toronto.

It’s day one.

I’m jet lagged and so I get up early and follow my colleague Laura down to the very first session, which is co-facilitated by Kathleen Gallagher of the University of Toronto’s OISE institute, and playwright Andrew Kushnir. Kathleen and Andrew talk a bit about their recent, amazing collaboration, Towards Youth, and then lead us in a Verbatim theatre workshop.

Andrew reads a series of value statements, and the rest of us place ourselves physically on an imaginary line in order to represent our feelings about those statements. Each time, someone inevitably ends up in the outlier position, and it’s immediately, viscerally clear to us all whether we are “in” or “out” of line. Andrew invites our discussion; outliers laugh and talk about how they aren’t really THAT outlier-ish. We laugh, too, sharing their discomfort and potential uncertainty.

Near the end of this part of the workshop, Andrew reads a statement that comes from the director Robert LePage; the comments he reads were made in the wake of a recent scandal involving the cultural appropriation of lived Black experience. I wasn’t aware of the statement’s origins; some others were, some not.

I found myself the outlier this time. I found myself agreeing with the spirit of the statement, divorced of its context. I felt strong in my brain that my position was a good one. But I felt queasy in my body on the edge of the pack.

Afterward, I thought hard about whether or not I would have positioned myself the same way had I known the statement’s origins. I thought carefully about the potential implications of that statement in a variety of contexts. I felt in my body the ugliness of being on the margin, but also the humility of seeing from two perspectives at once, and of being unsure of whether or not the choice I’d made was a good one for everyone. During our debrief, another member of the workshop wondered how our use of the statement might have changed if Lepage himself, as the author of those words, had been in the room and had been given the opportunity to contextualize them, reconsider them, debate them. We all wondered with him.

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Petra Kuppers demonstrates assisted floating during her Salamander workshop at UBC, June 2019.

Later that day I sit with hundreds of colleagues in a large auditorium to hear Petra Kuppers, our invited keynote speaker. Petra is talking about water-based workshops she holds around the world in order to reframe our experiences of our bodies and their interactions in relationship to ability. She begins by sharing a video reel of images from one of these workshops, and she asks us all to partner up and then to audio-describe the images we see. This proves incredibly challenging. My partner and I remark on how hard it is to find good, accurate words to convey the images on screen before they disappear. Experiencing the visual through the linguistic is discombobulating for me; it’s also conducive to improv poetry.

That afternoon I get to participate in Petra’s Salamander workshop myself. I arrive at the UBC aquatic centre and move quickly through the gender-neutral change room, arriving at a glorious, open, air-and-light-filled space containing no fewer than three pools (and many more different water-based places within them). We get in, Petra sets our stage, and soon we are holding one another at head and lower back to enable effortless floating.

I feel the pain in my arms as I try to hold my partner effectively. I hear the quiet around us in contrast to the sounds of children’s play, music, and voices elsewhere, echoing through the space. I float myself and feel the pure joy of looking into the ceiling, nothing else to do, but then I am suddenly conscious of my body’s weight and its potential burden and return to myself, differently.

Later, we move to a warmer pool and make sounds together, creating a water-based orchestra. I dive under several times and open my eyes to feel the sting of the chlorine and witness the wavy shapes of my colleagues’ and students’ bodies rendered amphibious. At dinner, I make gentle fun of the things we did, but in truth this is probably the most memorable and enjoyable experience I have ever had at an academic conference, where the norm is sitting quietly, stiffly, uncomfortably, struggling to listen attentively.

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A glam promo shot from Kim Senklip Harvey’s Kamloopa.

The next morning we gather in the same big auditorium to listen to three outstanding  indigenous women artists talk about re-matriating theatre on Turtle Island. As Lindsay Lachance, Quelemia Sparrow, and Kim Senklip Harvey talk about their practice, they share ways of working that don’t resemble the kinds of teaching and learning with which many of us settlers – directors, actors, or none – may be familiar.

They talk about “presencing” – sharing one another’s community stories to ground everyone in a room (in an Indigenous-led room). They talk about blood memory as a dramaturgical tool. They talk about birch bark biting as a means of embodying story, and as a practice of collaboration. They talk about making offerings to one another, gifting moments to one another, during rehearsal and in performance in order to keep everyone safe, strong, and well. They talk about making a shared Indigenous-led space, and then creating in that space using life ways and ways of art and labour connected to ancestors, and to generations of good practice. And they talk about indigenous women as theorists.

I witness this conversation on the stage, much of which is not just directed at us but connected to us as a dialogue – even though talking to settlers has got to be exhausting, endless labour for these women. I witness with gratitude as I watch and listen to them make theory together, laughing but also in moments hurting together. And I think about them as theorists not just of theatre and performance, but of pedagogy.

***

The Activist Classroom is going to take a break for the rest of the summer. Go to the beach already, people!

I’ll be back on 3 September, with a few surprises in tow.

Stay tuned, and thanks as always for reading!

Kim

Summer swag! (Read on for free stuff from my new issue of RiDE!)

 

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It’s here!

Many of you know that I’ve been at work for some time on a special issue of Research in Drama Education (RiDE), a performance and pedagogy journal based in the UK. The issue is called “Theatre and Performance vs the ‘Crisis in the Humanities’: Creative Pedagogies, Neoliberal Realities”, and it traces many of the same issues that have long been my concern here (and elsewhere): around academic labour in the neoliberal academy; around the role performance plays in addressing social issues far beyond the traditional remit of ‘theatre’ or even ‘the arts’ more generally; and around potential solutions we may already have at hand to best manage our ongoing imbrication in the now-normative ‘crisis’ in higher education, especially liberal or arts-based education.

The invitation to guest-edit an issue originally came from Colette Conroy, a resident RiDE editor, as a result of my work on the blog – and so it seems especially appropriate, and makes me particularly happy, to announce its publication in this space.

If you or your library have a subscription to the journal, you can access the entire issue online here.

But as a thanks to those of you who read regularly – and especially to those of you reading in the middle of summer! – below I’m including a URL that will give you free access to the issue’s introduction. It can only handle 50 clicks, though – so get in there early.

Thanks to you all for your ongoing support!
Kim

“Theatre and Performance, Crisis and Survival” (an excerpt from my introduction to the issue; the link to the full article follows)

‘Theatre and performance vs the “crisis in the humanities”’ has a very personal origin story.

It was late 2012, and I was working as a Senior Lecturer in Drama at Queen Mary, University of London – pretty much my dream job. My then-husband and I were living in South London, in a neighbourhood that had once been, perhaps, not much to look at (though a happy enough home to immigrants and regular working people) but was now full-on gentrified. We rented a two-bed garden flat that cost more than 75% of my take-home pay. The rest of our finances we cobbled together from J’s tech-entrepreneur income. Some months were way up, and some were way down.

So far, so global city. But life at work was also less manageable than I’d imagined it would be.

I’d been warned by colleagues that the UK academic system was very different from that in Canada, with a lot more faculty-side administration, HR-driven systems that gave the feel of a ‘corporate’ university structure, and of course the dreaded REF exercise: the ‘Research Excellence Framework’ that requires all departments in all UK universities to submit their top research ‘outputs’ for measurement against one another, in a Game of Thrones-style competition for league table status and future funding. When I arrived at QM, I was fully aware of all of these fresh challenges, but not prepared for how all-encompassing they would feel, day in and day out.

So this, I realised about three months into the job, is what it feels like to work in the neoliberal university.

Now, seven years on, I’m back in Canada at Western University, in southern Ontario. While we don’t yet have a REF to dread, our new provincial government is driving hard to implement quality-measurement tools that will be keyed to university funding around the province in the future. Western is finally emerging from a number of years under a dogmatically STEM- and business-forward administration, and our new president (a theatre scholar!) is one bright light at the end of this tunnel. But things are hardly about to change overnight, if they change at all: the aforementioned provincial government has just delivered punishing budget cuts that have seen my faculty’s (Arts & Humanities) part time workforce reduced by over 75%, and morale is the lowest it’s been in years. To try to save ourselves, teams of Deans and other senior administrators from Western fly regularly to China, desperate to attract a life-line’s worth of foreign-student investment. We continue to ‘internationalise’ as much as possible, imagining that is the key to our survival.

Welcome to the neoliberal university-as-normal.

[To read on, click here!]

 

 

 

What is experiential learning? Part one: an exciting new challenge, and a bunch of new questions

I’ve embarked on another new teaching adventure. This winter term, the students in my Performance Beyond Theatres class (basically, “intro to performance studies,” and one of the classes I’ve been working on renovating in an effort to decolonize my teaching practice) will be participating in a new program that links the City of London (Ontario) with Western University, as well as with Fanshawe College (also located in LonON). Called “City Studio London”, this program allows Western and Fanshawe students to work directly with City staff on new projects designed to improve community life for all Londoners.

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A gorgeous image from City Studio Abbotsford.

My course has been paired with a class in the Faculty of Social Science taught by Psychology professor Leora Swartzman; together our students will be working on gathering data about, and then generating performance interventions supporting, London’s new diversity and inclusion strategy. Our particular focus will be on the role of the bystander in making our city a safer and happier place for all.

I’m really excited about this project! It means my students will directly encounter the challenging work of collaboration with fellow student-scholars as well as with a civic partner. We will be able to put our thinking and reading about performance as a tool for advancing social justice into practice with the support of a capable and experienced city staffer. My students will be able to work creatively on a meaningful community issue, and they will see their performance actions come to life not just for each other, but publicly, for residents in our city. They will see the impact of their creative labour first-hand.

At the same time, though, I do have some questions about this work – about how we frame it, and about what we value most within it. These questions emerge for me from the way we’ve been talking about the work ahead as we’ve begun (only begun) prepping this course. They also resonate with anxieties I have about the “experiential learning” turn, and about its cognate, the “experience economy”. (For more on the latter, click here to read foundational research by Pine and Gilmore.)

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When you google “Experiential Learning” and hit “images”, you get diagrams. SO MANY DIAGRAMS. I’ve downloaded a few and am scattering them throughout this post. They make a compelling collage…

To be clear, I have every faith that Leora (who is practiced at community-engaged learning, one of many forms of experiential learning), our students, our community partners and I will do excellent work together, and that it will yield a range of valuable discoveries for all stakeholders. Like I said: I am, really, excited!

But as we have begun our planning work, I have become attuned to the way that experiential learning, in the context of this course and of the City Studio project more generally, is deeply, essentially linked to “deliverables” (this is the project’s language) for our City partners. City Studio begins from the premise that our students will work toward generating a measurable product meant to serve and support those partners; this is its primary objective. Positive, growth-oriented student “experiences” will (we assume; we very much hope) be had along the way, but this is an assumption that underlines, rather than supersedes, the measurable outcome as product.

Making a product for community use is of course a very valuable goal and one students are keen to participate in. I’m not opposed to it – in fact, as my dear friend and colleague Natalie Alvarez argues brilliantly in an upcoming interview in Research in Drama Education (24.3, August 2019), if we truly believe that Performance Studies is interdisciplinary in its reach and can mobilize performance as a multidisciplinary tool for teaching, learning, and discovery, then we must recognize that our partners in such discovery will have a range of outcomes in mind on their end. We have to recognize the legitimacy (and value) of those outcomes as part and parcel of our collaborative endeavours.

But still. There’s a real tension here (deliverables/outcomes = learning), and as I’ve noticed it, I’ve thought more about the value systems underlying the way our universities talk about experiential learning today. I’ve particularly noticed that the term is very often linked, or even elided, with things like internships and co-op opportunities. That is: with chances for students to go get “industry experience” as part of their degrees so they will graduate job-market ready.

 

This was not always the case. Among the earliest teachers to think outside the classroom box and imagine the labour of experiencing the world as central to a well rounded education were the American transcendentalists Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau, among their many peers. (Click here for my 2016 review of a superb book on the topic by Martin Bickman; click here for a quick, related read in the Washington Post.) Their pedagogical philosophy – characterized by heading for nature, exploring widely and without a particular end-product in mind, and then discussing, writing, thinking, and debating in the service of heartfelt reflection – resonates with the first definition of experiential learning quoted by Ryerson University’s Michelle Schwartz in her “Best Practices in Experiential Learning” (2012) (the quote is from Lewis and Williams, 1994):

In its simplest form, experiential learning means learning from experience or learning by doing. Experiential education first immerses learners in an experience and then encourages reflection about the experience to develop new skills, new attitudes, or new ways of thinking.

The philosophy behind experiential learning, then, does not define “experience” in any particular form; its openness inspires me, but, as Schwartz notes, that same openness “means that it can often be difficult to define what is and is not an experiential activity” (1). In building an “expanded definition” for the term (1-2), she cites numerous “working principles” for experiential learning from Chapman, McPhee and Proudman (1995); these include “an absence of excessive judgement” (perhaps in the form of constant quizzes and grading); “the role of reflection” both during and after activities; “creating emotional investment” for students, and shared investments between students and teachers; and “the re-examination of values” alongside “learning outside one’s perceived comfort zones” – coming to terms with difference in action.

These principles are meant to align with a range of active pedagogies, and of course they are highly socially and culturally transferable. So how did we get from learning to question our ingrained value systems and encountering difficulty productively, to internships with industry partners meant to lead to paid work? Schwartz ends her introductory comments with some sense of an answer:

From the point of view of the university, experiential learning can help institutions stay relevant to students by providing them with the necessary skills to transition into the workforce. Cantor also sees experiential learning as helping the university fulfill the need for “higher education to more closely interface with business to promote community economic development” (1995, p. 79). For institutions concerned with issues of inclusion, experiential learning can promote “the value of diversity… and bring together people of different social, ethnic, and economic classes,” preparing students for entry into the world at large (1995, p.81).

Experiential learning can also be a boon to departments with few resources, and “the literature highlights the benefits of using experiential learning to embellish lean instructional and budgetary resources” or to “bolster your available resources” (Cantor, 1995, p. 84).

What’s wrong with this picture? It comes straight from the neoliberal university playbook. This is the model that argues universities should be in the business of training students for the work force, first and foremost. In the process this model implies (or sometimes outright states!) that a social-democratic, liberal-arts education is at best an elective and at worst a waste of time to be defunded (because hey, the unlucky departments can always hunt for industry partners to “bolster [their] available resources”!).

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Notice in particular the language at the end of the longer paragraph just above: if institutions are “concerned with issues of inclusion,” experiential learning can help them promote diversity as a value. Of course this is a good thing, in itself; what’s not so good, though, is that experiential learning, in this configuration, functions as a handmaiden to support neoliberal university policy: diversify or lose student bodies, and the dollars now attached to them.

I get cranky a lot about the neoliberal university. And there’s no question that modelling experiential learning on its principles is a risky bargain. But this isn’t where I want to dwell, here or in my next post. 

Rather, what I want to emphasize is this: the “industry-partnership” version of experiential learning risks ignoring (in fact, risks making invisible) the many other, incredibly beneficial, ways in which learning is already, and always should be, “experiential” in nature and scope.

Forget “experiential learning” for a minute. What is it to experience learning? What would it mean really to “do” experience – to treat experience as a verb, “a doing” (Lewis and Williams) and not a thing, an activity we undertake in (co)motion rather than an object to possess?

Notice how, in much of what I’ve quoted above, and in the language of experiential learning that circulates around us today, “experience” always functions as a noun or an adverb. It modifies “learning”; it is a thing to be grasped and made monetizable.

Students should have stimulating experiences out in “the real world” in order to build “work experience.” In the “experience economy” we purchase cool coffee shop vibes, not lattes made for drinking.

If experience is understood, in our economy and thus our workaday world, as a thing to be purchased and coveted, how can it also be used as a tool to bring us together, to build community, to drive political change?

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Don’t get me wrong. I love a nice latte.

I find this conundrum fascinating. Is experiential learning, in a neoliberal economy, fundamentally at odds with itself? What kinds of experiences might we highlight, as students and teachers, in order to bring different, less immediately commodifiable modes of experiencing back into the field of representation?

That’s the topic for my next post, where I’ll share several short snapshots of “experiencing learning” from my recent trip to the annual CATR (Canadian Association for Theatre Research) conference in Vancouver, BC. I’ll try in that post to model an alternative praxis of learning-as-experience; I hope to take it with me into this fall’s exciting new labour with City Studio.

Meanwhile, stay cool!

Kim