Sharing our resources better: more thoughts on what to bring with us post-COVID (#ACsurvivalguide)

Kelsey,

In your last post you brought up the question of mentorship in the Zoom era, and what aspects of that often-frustrating but occasionally remarkable experience we need to port with us when the Tardis door opens post-COVID.

This week I want to think about another aspect of COVID teaching that has lessons to offer the After Times: sharing our resources more wisely.

It takes imagination, and generosity, to make a thriving (theatre) ecology.

My inspiration for this one comes from the large experiential learning class I’m currently teaching at Western, “Toronto: Culture and Performance”. (NB: I stole this title and concept shamelessly from my dear colleagues at Queen Mary University of London, Department of Drama, which runs a course of the [nearly] same name focused on London’s theatre ecology. What can I say? Winning formula.)

The Before Times: spectators experience “Death of the Sun” at Toronto’s Nuit Blanche, 2016

In the Before Times, TOCAP (as I call it) took 40+ students from three difference academic programs, plus me and a TA, to watch live shows in Toronto, in Stratford, ON (at the Stratford Festival), and even in Little London, ON from time to time (comparison shopping across ecologies is very informative stuff). The course is very popular, but expensive to run: student fees (which we cap at CAD$150, or the equivalent of a textbook-heavy course in any other field) cover about 50% of the cost of buses, theatre tickets, and guest speakers, while the rest is made up from donations from the academic programs whose students join the class, plus funds from a pot within our shared faculty to which I need to reapply every year (a bit sheepishly).

The costs have proven worth it, though: we have seen outstanding work by a wide and diverse range of artists on the cutting edge of what our friend and colleague Ric Knowles calls “the intercultural city,” and students are given opportunities to think and work creatively, based on their own intellectual, cultural, and career interests, in a range of different assignments.

(Shows we’ve been privileged to see live in years past! Evalyn Parry and Anna Chatterton in Gertrude and Alice at Buddies in Bad Times; the cast of Come From Away in their Toronto home; the banner for Hong Kong Exile’s amazing animated show No Foreigners.)

When COVID hit, in March 2020, the next round of TOCAP was scheduled for autumn. We quickly shifted things around to move it to winter term, hoping against hope that theatres would be “open” again come January. Of course, that did not happen.

What did I do? First, I took stock of what we had. In addition to a range of emerging online resources from Toronto theatre companies, most of which were being offered for free or PWYC to all comers, I also had 40+ students x $150 to spend. (This money is centrally collected by our registrar’s office, so was already in the bank.)

I then got to work exploring what was happening in the Toronto theatre ecology, online edition, and which companies our funds could best support as they navigated this incredibly precarious time.

I discovered: groups experimenting with online-hybrid formats that are likely to push the definition of theatre forward in the coming years (Factory Theatre, Nightwood Theatre, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre); groups that had archival resources to share and an eagerness to reflect on them with us (The Theatre Centre); and groups whose work on decolonizing theatre in Tkaronto (also known in English as Toronto) was ongoing, though increasingly through exhaustion, given the working conditions demanded by COVID (Manidoons Theatre Collective, Native Earth Performing Arts, and more).

Acts of Faith, by David Yee and starring Natasha Mumba, was a huge hit with the class. Factory Theatre commissioned and produced it as a to-camera, for-livestream hybrid work that was at turns deeply intimate and seriously creepy.

I reached out to these companies; I noted that we had $1000 per theatre to spend, and that we’d be happy to spread this money out across screening fees, speakers’ fees for artists to join us in class, and more.

“Into Mother’s Womb” by Natalie Sappier illustrates Aria Evans’ choreographic score The Price of Us Waiting, part of the Embodying Power and Place project co-supported by Nightwood Theatre and Native Earth Performing Arts.

Every company came to play! In the spirit of my ongoing work as a teacher to decolonize my classrooms, we opened with Native Earth Performing Arts’ 2020 Weesageechak Begins to Dance festival, a collection of pieces by emerging Indigenous artists that this year took place as a series of conversations online, including screenings of works in progress. We were joined in class by NEPA Artistic Director Keith Barker, who showed immense generosity of spirit as he talked about his journey into the arts and into claiming his identity as a proud Métis man, answered student questions with an open heart, and reminded us all that land acknowledgements are celebrations, not obligations.

Turtle Island: our shared home now. What can we do to celebrate and sustain our home?

Next we hosted friends from the Theatre Centre, Aislinn Rose and Adam Lazarus, who are behind the important Bouffon clown work Daughter. It’s an uncomfortable takedown of toxic masculinity in its most mundane form, and together in class we had a searching conversation about the costs vs benefits of performing a show that may cause some viewers harm, in order to open other viewers’ eyes to the harm they already cause. We screened Factory Theatre’s Acts of Faith, a live-to-camera show about a young Black woman’s agency made literally, dramaturgically, and thematically for the Zoom room, and then followed that up with a refreshingly tactile non-Zoom-based experience, Buddies in Bad Times’ Rhubarb! “Book of the Festival,” featuring a hardback full of relational and participatory pieces by LGBTQ2SIA+ artists that we can keep, hold, and return to again and again when, you know, ZOOM FATIGUE.

This week, we come back to questions of colonial legacies and settler responsibilities as we screen brand-new work by Indigenous women and two-spirit artists as part of the Embodying Power and Place project. Spearheaded by Nightwood associate artist and dramaturg Donna-Michelle St-Bernard and co-supported by Nightwood Theatre and Native Earth, this project features 12 pieces that respond to the 12 chapters contained in “Reclaiming Power and Place,” the report of the national (Canadian) inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

The 2021 Rhubarb! Festival of queer performance art, curated by Clayton Lee. Good times away from the Zoom room!

We could not be more grateful for the shared time, effort, and labour all of these companies and artists have brought to our table, and each were grateful for the support that we were able to pass along to them in turn. Adam made me laugh when I made our $1K offer, expressing surprise at so much money for art, while Aislinn talked about using her speakers’ fee to support the purchase of much-needed new glasses. Nightwood figured out how to donate a portion of their fee to one of the charities to which they are directing donations for Embodying Power and Place, while also paying artists to join us as speakers. Native Earth Performing Arts performed, as always, its structural commitment to resource-sharing in the spirit of the Dish With One Spoon Wampum when it waived its screening fee for our access to Weesageechak; we redirected some of that money toward a screening of Manidoons Collective’s acclaimed performance bug (our capstone event, happening next week! See below – it’s public and FREE to register!), and we used the rest to pay for a session on decolonizing the work of theatre reviewing with Carly Maga of the Toronto Star.

On April 1 our class will host our final guests, Yolanda Bonnell, actor and creator, and Jay Havens, scenographer, as they share their acclaimed work bug and speak with us about decolonization and the theatre in Toronto and beyond. Please register to join this free, public event using the address in the image!

The class this year has looked unlike anything I’ve run before. Sure, we’ve seen the performances, just like always, and sure, we’ve done readings about the “global city,” the “intercultural city,” settler encounters with Indigenous performances and more, just like always. But it has not been business as usual in the Zoom room (as if it could be!).

For one thing, we meet just 1.5 hours a week, rather than a typical block of 3h/week. (That three-hour block is meant to accommodate theatre visits, after all!) Instead, I set pre-class prep tasks for the students two days ahead of our scheduled meetings; this gives them a chance to engage independently with the work on offer and do some independent writing, as their time and interests permit.

For another, most of our classes are comprised of Q&A sessions with artists: these are a chance for students to connect with creators, actors, directors, playwrights, and administrators. While I love the sound my own voice as much as the next prof, the truth is we are all tired, and right now what we need is opportunities to be inspired, to hear creative workers talk with joy about their practice and to offer us the chance to respond to and engage with that work in ways that light up our own creative sparks. More lectures? Not helpful.

Of course, I fully expect that, come evaluation time, a few students are going to say “Kim didn’t lecture enough,” or “we didn’t talk enough about the readings.” Maybe true; this is a patch-job class structure as much as it is a thoughtful and reasoned solution to a ridiculous global emergency. Next time out, I’ll aim for a bit more balance.

But never will I regret giving over the majority of my class time, and ALL of our class resources (plus some generously donated to support Manidoons’ visit with bug – please come!), to uplift the incredible work our artists do and the literally invaluable contribution they make to our wellbeing as humans, citizens, and communities – pandemic or none.

So what about you, Kelsey? What resources have you had to reallocate during this hairy pandemic school year, and how has that gone?

– Kim

Where’s my collaboration mojo?

Happy March, dear AC readers!

In our last post, Kelsey reflected on a specific collaboration conundrum, and work-life balance in the pandemic. Today, Kim thinks about academic collaboration a bit more philosophically… with help from an amazing artist, Amanda Leduc.

***

Two weeks ago, I attended a book launch on Zoom. Not my first rodeo, either: we’ve been festival-ing and launching and doing all the conference things on Zoom for coming up to a year now. (March 12 is my Zoomiversary; what’s yours, Kelsey?)

But this launch was different.

Sorry if you missed it! The launch for Amanda Leduc’s new novel, The Centaur’s Wife, was Tuesday 16 February. There is a recording: view it here!

The celebration was for Amanda Leduc’s new novel, The Centaur’s Wife, an extraordinary work that reflects on love, desire, grief and loss through a lens equal parts magic realism, fairy tale, and disability justice. (I HIGHLY recommend you order it. You can also check out Kelsey’s interview with Amanda, from 2020, here.)

We opened in now-utter-familiarity: the host, novelist and activist for literary equity Jael Richardson, was dropped from her internet connection mid-way through her delightful introduction. Turns out her power had gone off; in haste (though with spectacular grace, it must be said), fellow author Larissa Lai stepped in without missing a beat.

The launch then began in earnest not with Amanda, but with two of her collaborators: Victoria Carr, the musical artist who narrated the audio book (The Centaur’s Wife is the first novel in Canada to be published in all accessible formats simultaneously), and Anne Collins, Amanda’s editor at Penguin Random House. Victoria shared a song and then spoke to Larissa about her engagement with the characters, the process of recording the audio book, and the importance of being part of a small but mighty movement for literary accessibility (thanks to Amanda’s own perseverance). Anne and Larissa then talked about the long, sometimes messy, and always rewarding process of working with an author to bring the kernel of an idea into being as a novel-length work, written and rewritten again over a nearly five-year period.

Finally, Amanda stepped in to receive our applause, answer many challenging questions, and offer clear-eyed and fierce reflections on the work of literary artists (now more than ever).

Amanda speaking about her 2020 nonfiction book, Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space, on TVO’s The Agenda.

I was riveted to the launch, and not just because Amanda is my friend and neighbour. It was compelling from start to finish precisely because it foregrounded literary arts as collaborative writing and publishing as the work of “a community,” as Amanda noted at the end of the event, directing our attention to the acknowledgements at the back of her book and inviting us all to read them.

It takes a village to make a book: we all know this, whether we write novels or nonfiction or monographs for other scholars or books for students or children. We all, in the scholarly publishing community, have our own acknowledgements pages. But Amanda’s launch reflected much more than the basics of this kind of book-as-village feel: it mirrored the fulsome, utterly joyous, depth-of-flavour-process that birthed her new book into being, and as I listened to and then reflected on the discussions about collaboration peppered throughout the launch, I started to reflect on my own collaborative journeys.

And I asked myself: what exactly are we – we academics, in particular – doing when we collaborate? How thick, how deep, are those processes for us? Especially when it comes to making books – books we might call “solo authored” on our CVs – where are our collaborators, and how do we make that process richer and more meaningful (not to mention more visible!) for all?

I’ve been an editor most of my career; I’ve written solo books too, of course, but I have gravitated toward (and, somewhat to my surprise, stayed with) editing in part because of the satisfaction it gives me to support another writer as they try to locate the core of their argument, and then reorganize the skeleton of their work better to support it. This work is often long, it’s often fraught, and – spoiler alert – I don’t think it’s aided in any way by the discursive frameworks that traditionally describe the academic writing process (aka: publish or perish, anyone?).

The scientists are not alone: this cartoon shows a racetrack-style setup, with a scientist with manuscript at one end, the words “paper accepted!” in lights at the other, and a collection of peers with instruments of torture ranged along the route. Save the grim reaper, all the cartoon scientists are white; this does not shock me.

Do you remember the first time you submitted a piece of work to an academic journal? You prayed for “accept”, braced for “reject”, and while you knew that “revise and resubmit” wasn’t ideal, it would be acceptable (after a day or two, and maybe after a good cry).

I remember mine: in the third year of my PhD I sent a lightly revised term paper (later to be published in Modern Drama, and I’ll come back to that) to Theatre Journal, one of the most prestigious venues in our field. I received a fast response: a reject from the then-editor, who had clearly sussed out that this was a term paper and needed a lot of work to be even peer-reviewable. TJ is a big journal, publishing four times a year and loaded down with submissions, so I don’t blame this editor (who was a volunteer!!) for ending at reject (plus a couple of sentences to ostensibly steer me toward revision) – although I do still think about the prof who encouraged me to publish the paper without offering me any further advice on how to do that. (Story for another time.)

I was devastated. But I was also aware that I was supposed to be devastated: only the best get published, right? You are clearly not good enough yet, Kim! Work harder! Graft alone to make that paper better! When it reflects that you are smart-smart-enough you will get the royal “accept”, and then you can feel like less of an imposter!

When the imposter syndrome expert realizes she has imposter syndrome… #realtalk

What a high, barred gate those three options, “reject”, “revise and resubmit”, and “accept” make together, yes? They keep out those who are not in the know; those who don’t have sympathetic mentors; those who do not come from academic or cultural privilege.

I learned this unspoken fact of academic life only through my connection to Modern Drama, where I was an editorial assistant: I was lucky enough to be working with then co-editor Joanne Tompkins on my research “day job”, which meant I could approach her for advice. I shared both the TJ editor’s note and my draft with her; she then took the time to teach me the difference between a term paper and an article (something every graduate student needs to learn sooner or later, btw, because it is not knowledge that sprouts unbidden from your degree certificate).

She guided me gently through a rigorous editorial process, then sent the paper for peer review at Modern Drama. It remains today one of the most downloaded papers in the history of the journal, and one of which I’m most proud.

Joanne is my editorial mentor, as I am mentor to others now. I’m not saying this to suggest that Joanne and I are special; we were/are able to do this kind of mentoring work because our work circumstances are fortunately such that we have the time to do the actual labour of editing – to undertake the kind of process Anne undertook with Amanda, a genuine, durational collaboration between author and editor, writer and curious, informed, but detached eye.

Penguin Random House editor Anne Collins.
Kim’s editorial mentor, Professor Joanne Tompkins (Queensland)

As Anne put it during the launch, we editors are privileged to invest in the work of authors for whom the piece under construction is owned, held dear; this allows us to hold and support them, cheer them on and push them harder, all the while letting them know that if the roof caves in someone is there with a fix, a hug, words of encouragement and a path forward out of the muddle. (I really like this metaphor of investment; it captures what I feel as an editor.)

In the academy, though, who really has this kind of investable time? Editing work is considered “volunteer” work among us profs, and detrimentally it often valued as such: I had to fight to make my editing labour “count” when time came for me to go up for promotion, and only one of the three external examiners of my portfolio made explicit note of my editing’s proper, collaborative value. We’re usually told not to bother editing: monographs or high-profile journal articles “count” for more than “edited” volumes, as though there is no work done in those projects. (HA!!!) Editing a journal? Be prepared for nobody at your institution to notice or care.

In other words: what (still) most “counts” in the publish-or-perish landscape is the labour you are expected to do alone, isolated, terrified even that the result will never be good enough.

Of course your finished book/article will bear the hands of others, and sometimes (rarely) those hands will be very hands-on, the hands of a supportive editor with the time and space to share. More often, though, they will be the hands of outsourced copyeditors paid a pittance, and publishers whose interest extends to “get the damn thing in on time”. At many crossover book publishers (Routledge, Bloomsbury Methuen, I’m looking at you), traditional peer review isn’t even guaranteed anymore, depriving us (when the reviewer is kind, when the reviewer recognizes their responsibility) of what little thoughtful third-party advice we could count on when it’s needed most.

This is a catastrophe. Editing labour is arduous but urgent and needs supporting and rewarding, at all levels of publication and among both academics and career editors. (When I talked to Amanda about this, she noted that Anne is herself a rarity in the world of fiction publishing.)

Further, sending graduate students out into the academic work world equipped with the belief that their careers stand or fall on the things they write while isolated, uncertain of their worth, and filled with anxiety is genuinely cruel and a recipe for ongoing exclusion and white-washing in the ivory tower.

Now might be a good time to remind ourselves that Amanda’s brilliant new book is at bottom about disability justice, about making space for others in worlds that demonize difference; it was made possible because Anne held Amanda, and Amanda worked with and for Anne, and through Anne’s support, over a period of years – culminating in a triumph.

How many of us can say that about even one piece of our academic writing? I’m genuinely curious.

What are your stories of collaboration in academic labour, friends? What are the highs? The lows? Is it getting better from where you sit, or worse? Let us know.

Work/Life: Is there even a distinction anymore?

Dear Kim.

Last week, a friend suggested we work together on a project.

Possible answers swirled through might head: Absolutely! Let me check my schedule and get back to you? That’s a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad, idea.

Image result for no good very bad
A picture from Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.

“Yeah …” I managed. “That might work. Let’s talk about it more next time?”

“Sure!”

The conversation flowed on, but I can’t help but reflect on it.

To contextualize (and because I have friends that read this blog), this person is well outside of academia (yes, such people exist in my life!). My friend is totally lovely. I value them immensely. And also: the thought of working with them made every muscle in my body tense up.

In doing a bit of soul searching, I think my full body resistance to working with my friend is that I view my roles as friend and as collaborator differently. As a friend, I’m a supporter, a cheerleader, a patient listener. As a collaborator, I have ideas, impulses, and opinions. I also have skin in the game, so I sometimes state, and advocate for, my opinions. For a friend that hasn’t experienced me in work-collaborator mode, I suspect that distinction would be a little jarring.

But I realize that in this weird new Zoomiverse, the distinction between my different selves is slipping. As everyone keeps noting, the pandemic has flattened our experiencing, putting our teaching, writing, learning, and socializing lives in front of a screen. And that screen is often the same screen, in the same location, in the same home, that one has been in for months.

Image result for computer screen
Does this blank computer screen feel frighteningly familiar?

How, precisely, is attending a Zoom screening of a theatre show for a class I’m teaching distinct from watching a Netflix show for pleasure before bed?

How, exactly, are department meetings distinct from teleconference family check-ins?

Is there any real distinction between my professional and personal selves (other than the fact that professional me wears nicer shirts) now that those selves spend all their time in front of a computer?

More importantly, do the distinctions between work and non-work activities matter at the moment? Should I be trying to protect those boundaries? Or is it a time to let them go?

Any thoughts for a drifting online teacher?

– Kelsey

Balancing? Or drifting away?

Oh God Kelsey, WORD.

I’m having an especially hard time with this one lately. Maybe it’s the wintry conditions here in southern Ontario (not -36C, sorry Calgary! But still stupidly cold by our standards), or maybe it’s FEBRUARY, or maybe it’s just that we’re coming up on T-minus-almost a year ago.

I look at the staircase that links my kitchen to my office and I think: dammit. It’s the stairs again.

I WISH.

One of the paradoxes of COVID is this: we’ve been in the same space, more or less, for a year now. Because that space has had to open up to contain our entire worlds, our worlds have also had to shrink to fit the space of our homes, our screens. The thing that seemed kind of unusually cozy (even a bit like an adventure??!) at the start of it all (permission to stay home!!!) now feels not only unbelievably stifling, but like a recipe for emotional burnout.

The Infinity Staircase, after you’ve stared at it every day, fifteen times a day, for a year.

I’m struggling like you with these feelings, but I’ve come up recently with a couple of useful hacks for changing things up a bit.

FIRST: I bought some good wireless headphones. (Pro tip: if you work for a university in any capacity, email your line manager right now to find out if there’s a tech fund for people like you. Chances are there is, and all you need for top-quality wireless headphones is access to $300.)

How is this a game changer? I now leave not just my home space, but my headspace, when I go out walking the dog (or just myself). I do take some work calls on walks, but mostly I try to reserve walks for personal calls. The latter human interlocutors are more understanding about all the dog-meets-dog-shuffle-sniff-sniff noises, and it’s fun to share Emma’s walkies travails with said humans. It all adds up to a change of pace and space that I can attach, cognitively and in my muscles and bones, to pleasurable chit-chat. Sometimes, friends with dogs in other cities even take synchronous dog walks with me!

Kim and Emma the Dog out walking on a very frozen Lake Ontario. Kim enjoys the sun! Emma prefers the smells.

SECOND: try moving the screens around. (I realize this one might not be feasible if you have just one big screen you use for all the things; in that case, try the phone. I have never used my phone to watch videos, but perhaps I’m a luddite that way.)

My strategy is to reserve all work-related viewing for upstairs in the home office, and all home-related viewing for downstairs in the living-dining area. Whenever possible, I use my iPad (second hand and circa 2013 – seriously, this is all it’s good for now!) for Netflix, Crave et al. (Also for reading newspapers, an excellent after-dinner activity.) A change of place, and/or a change of screen, translates – as with the dog-walking-with-headphones – into a slight shift in how the tech is used, which can make a not insignificant difference to your sense of why you’re using it. I mean, if you think about it, our teaching and living technologies have always overlapped (from reading to walking to having coffee with people); it’s about the when, the where, and the how we frame experiences to be either “work” or “life”.

(And one more hack, which [maybe?] by now goes without saying… no screens in the bedroom, people. For me, this one is huge. Reading before bed is a pleasure no pandemic can take from you.)

A kitty cat with a good book and a cuppa. Let’s pretend it’s decaf! Seriously: all the other memes I could find featured thin white women reading in bed. WTF is up with that?

Now Kelsey, to your OTHER issue, the catalyst for this post.

I can’t speak to the project your friend proposed, or your interest in it, but if the big issue is actually your fear of letting such a collaboration fully and completely consume the thin sliver of matzo currently separating your two Kelseys, perhaps the best thing to do is to let your friend know that, right now, the prospect of any more work intruding upon your home-life relationships is more than your Zoom-ravaged heart can handle.

Tell them that as soon as it’s allowed, you’ll meet for a sunny coffee on a bench atop Mount Royal and talk about how collaborating as friends could work, and about what challenges it will inevitably create (you are so not alone here). Because at the end of the day keeping work and life separate isn’t just a labour of COVID; it’s an ongoing challenge for us all.

– Kim

The view from Montreal’s Mount Royal in autumn. We will meet again!

The Survey Results Are In!

Friends, welcome to September 2020, which I’m sure looks very different to any September you’ve previously encountered. Personally, I’m missing the joy of returning to a campus where the fall colours are beginning to emerge, even as the sun still shines and its heat still warms the grass (while the geese run rampant, pooping all over it!). I’m also missing seeing my students live; I’m teaching a “hybrid” class this term, but it’s not the same, not by a long shot.

Like this. it’s a whole thing. They even have their own Facebook page!

Luckily, as autumn roles in here in central Canada, some things are still shiny and new; this includes the results from our summer readership survey. Thank you to all who participated!

Kelsey and I have pored over the details, and are making tweaks accordingly. From now on, you can look forward to two monthly posts, one of which will be a “practical tips and ideas” post, and the second of which will be a longer, narrative think piece. (You’ve told us both of these kinds of posts are most appreciated by readers.) Occasionally, we may include interviews or other post formats, but we’ll try to stick broadly to this model so that you know what to expect in your inbox.

We also want to introduce as many, and as many diverse, new voices as possible: this means platforming people of different backgrounds, ages, career paths, abilities, and so on. Because we know that contributing to a site such as this one is a commitment of time and energy, and because we know lots of folks are very overworked right now (especially folks who tick “diversity” slots at work…), we are aiming to make guest contributions as not-onerous, and as fun, as possible.

To that end, we are planning to curate “hot topic conversations” – perfect for the COVID moment, but massively useful for all the other teaching times, too. The plan: to convene roundtables on Zoom, record the discussion (with everyone’s permission, of course), and then share both the transcript and an audio-described video of the roundtable in this space. This format will allow us to gather and learn from a range of voices, but the time commitment will be manageable and the physical labour minimal. What’s more, we will gather “hot topics” (the themes of the panels) and potential panelists (to talk about those themes) separately, so that nobody feels they need to make themselves vulnerable around an issue they’d rather not discuss in public.

This is of course, like all our experiments over the past fourteen months, a work in progress, and to actualize it we need your help!

SO…

If you’d like to participate in a Zoom roundtable over a “hot teaching topic”, if you’d like to suggest a “hot teaching topic” for a roundtable, or if you’d like to contribute to the AC in another way, please let us know by heading to this link and filling out this VERY VERY VERY short form. (It’s really short.)

 

As well, if you indicated on our summer survey that you’d like to contribute to the AC in some way, we’d be very grateful if you’d click the link and complete the form too, so we know who you are!

Many thanks for your support of the AC, friends. We’re looking forward to growing in a healthy way and supporting you in turn through this very strange new school year.

With gratitude!

Kim + Kelsey

New Year, Old Memories

Last November I traveled to Washington, D.C. for the annual conference of the American Society for Theatre Research; while there I had the chance to catch up with one of the first students I ever taught in a classroom of my own.

Dr Colleen Kim Daniher, Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at San Francisco State University, received her PhD from Northwestern University; before that, amongst many other things, she took  English 289E: Modern Drama (F/W 2005-06) with me at the University of Western Ontario, during my very first term on the tenure track.

Colleen Kim Daniher, in hands down the best prof headshot I’ve ever seen.

Colleen just completed her own first term on the tenure track, with a new baby to boot, and not long after we ate dinner together in D.C. she sent me a lovely, warm message telling me what my class had meant to her.

Any teacher knows what an honour it is to read such words; I was touched beyond measure. But I was also, slightly, amused – because that class was hands-down the hardest I’ve ever taught. It was trial by fire, mistake after mistake. To this day, Every Christmas I remember sitting in my bedroom in my rented flat in downtown London, Ontario on Boxing Day, holding the envelope full of anonymous midterm surveys I’d collected before the break, terrified (and I mean TERRIFIED: sweaty, heart racing, you name it) that they all read: YOU ARE A TERRIBLE TEACHER!!!

Not that kind. But you get it.

After reading Colleen’s note, and wiping the smile off my face, I had an idea. What if she and I did a reflection exercise about that class? Clearly it had an impact on her I didn’t readily recall, and clearly it took a toll on me she didn’t know about. Further, it’s obvious we both took major lessons from that year into our independent pedagogical futures. What were those lessons?

I decided to ask; Colleen was game. Herewith, the results.

1. What’s your strongest memory from English 289E: Modern Drama? What about this memory has stuck with you over all this time?

Colleen

My strongest memory from English 289E was the way it asked me and my fellow English literature classmates to harness performance practice as a mode of dramatic analysis. I remember being confused and yet very taken with the idea that performance could be a way of interrogating text, an idea implicit to the weekly small group scene studies that were assigned throughout the course. The basic premise was that each week, a group of about five or six students in our class of thirty would stage an excerpt from a text we were studying that week. This group was called “The Company.” The class met twice weekly (for one whole calendar year!), so we would have a more conventional professor-run lecture on Tuesdays, and then on Thursdays, we, the students, would essentially lead the day’s conversation. First, “The Company” would perform their interpretation of their chosen scene for the entire class, then another small group of students (called “The Colleague-Critics”) would have to respond, leading the rest of the class in a discussion of the staging just witnessed. The groups were randomly assigned and fixed through the run of the semester, so you would get to know your group-mates quite well and rotate several times as a unit through both Company and Colleague-Critic roles.

It was unlike any class activity I had ever been a part of. I remember prior to my first small group performance (a staging of Ubu Roi) reading and re-reading the syllabus instructions, trying to “figure out” what the assignment was actually about. In hindsight, the hardest part of the assignment was shedding my presuppositions around performance as a (finished, polished) product. I can’t speak for the other students in the class, but the invitation to perform in a drama class was one that I was personally hungering for: I was a theatre nerd in a university without a formal theatre department. I got my kicks in the music department as a Voice major and in the student-run, on-campus theatre organization [Theatre Western]. However, what we were being asked to do with performance in the class was completely different than what I was used to as a fairly experienced musician and actor. We had very little rehearsal time, scripts-in-hand, and the barest of production values. The point, I would learn, was not to “put on a performance” but to think through performance in the act of its doing. It was a bit opaque at the time, but utterly intoxicating. In fact, this first taste of the conjoining of performance as a critical-intellectual endeavor and performance as an embodied practice is what I live for today as a Performance Studies scholar!

Also: Brecht! So much Brecht. Everything I now know about Brecht I learned in this class.

The muppets: seriously epic.

Kim

The methodology Colleen describes above was a hybrid of stuff I learned from one of my undergraduate mentors, Nora Foster Stovel, at the University of Alberta (where I completed my BA), and from my postdoctoral mentor, Jill Dolan, at UT Austin. Looking back through Colleen’s description I realize that what I was asking the students to do was basic practice-as-research (PBR), but at the time, believe it or not, I didn’t have that language to share! (I was trained in Shakespeare, kids.) I didn’t actually realize until now that it was as opaque as it seemed to Colleen and her peers; that said, my experiences of performances up to this point in my career had been less polish, more muck. No wonder we struggled!

My strongest memory of the class, meanwhile, is that moment on my bedroom floor I describe above, and the problems that led to it. While Colleen recalls perfectly the shape of the class’s learning week as it finally settled, we began in a much less tidy place. In the first term, I held a two-hour lecture in our Tuesday block, and the student performances happened on a Thursday. Quickly I realized that the students were struggling to figure out what kinds of questions to ask about their peers’ performances, how to extend the knowledge those performances were making. We had trouble filling the hour and I was devastated; they were looking at me for direction and I felt like I was failing. This problem consumed my first term at Western and produced more than a few nights in tears.

Eventually, after reading the mid-term anonymous feedback (SPOILER ALERT: not a terrible teacher!), I decided on a change: we’d swap the second hour of Tuesday for the performances, then come back Thursday and extend our learning by bringing the performance and our readings for the week into fulsome conversation. This took the pressure off the students to figure out all the performance things, and it helped me to model what performance research really looks like in practice.

It was the best teaching decision I ever made. It reminded me 1) not to be afraid to admit difficulties and make changes; and 2) to trust the students to show me the way.

2. What aspects of the class have you found yourself thinking about as you’ve developed a research and teaching career? IE: was something “inspiring” and in what way? (NB: I know this may be another way of saying question 1.)
 
Colleen

I continue to teach and preach performance practice as a serious mode of intellectual engagement. As an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at San Francisco State University, I teach courses that follow a very similar two-part model of instruction as English 289E: lecture/discussion one day a week, and an applied performance lab on the second day. In my classes (“Performance and Identity” and “Performance Art”) my students respond to the course material through discussion, writing, and the actual doing of performance.

Integrating performance practice in the classroom is sometimes the hardest thing, especially as a recently arrived teacher at a new institution (the logistics of finding space! of scheduling performance assignments!). But my training, first, as an undergraduate student in Modern Drama, then as a graduate student in Northwestern’s Performance Studies department, instilled in me a strong sense of the value of integrating performance practice and theory. For me, it’s a matter of the politics of knowledge transmission: I want my students to see and to understand that performance is a legitimate site of knowledge inquiry and production, not (only) a specialized domain of artistic activity. It’s an expressive tool and an analytic lens that can help us understand the world around us. And looking back, I can see that Modern Drama gave me my first taste of that specific orientation towards performance.

Dear Kim,

Here it is! My responses are probably too long, but it turns out I had a lot to say. Also, so much fun remembering : )

My takeaway: it was more fun being a student than a teacher ; )

-C

Kim

Modern Drama in that first year on the tenure track was, for me, my first inkling that thinking seriously about the practice of teaching was going to become a central part of my academic career. Unlike Colleen at the time, I already had a sense of the importance of practice-based research creation (thank you, UofT and UT!), but what I didn’t have was the confidence of an experienced teacher.

The hardest thing about that year was realizing that I was going to mess up, A LOT, and that I needed to figure out what to do about it. After the winter break, when I explained to the students how things were going to shift in our schedule and why this shift was a good idea, I took the time to tell them (in aggregate, of course) about the things they had told me on their anonymous midterm surveys, and how their sharing had led me directly to tweaks I thought would benefit us all. Basically, I told them outright what I’d assumed they’d understood all along: that we were collaborators, a team, and their input was as crucial as mine to our shared learning success.

The hardest thing about that year was realizing that I was going to mess up, A LOT, and that I needed to figure out what to do about it.
-K

Since then, I work in every new classroom to name collaboration as the core of my teaching practice: I introduce myself as a team member as well as a guide, I work on building classroom community in the early weeks of term, and I explain my process meta-cognitively as much as possible, also building in meta-cognitive reflection practices for students along the way. In my Theatre Studies classes, I don’t always now use the lab model Modern Drama followed, but we always do active learning labour and then think about the “how” and the “why” of our shared practice.

3. What’s your memory of Kim as a teacher? (Here, please be honest. I love when everyone says how amazing I am *coughs bashfully*, but that term was SO HARD for me. I’d appreciate honest recollections from the other side of the desk!)

Colleen

Kim was easily one of the best undergraduate professors I had ever had. It was just so obvious how much she cared and how hard she was working for us as students. This is something I try to remind myself of when I’m feeling down about my own teaching: how letting your students see you working hard for them can be just as effective as the mythic “perfectly-planned” course.

I remember the epic-long, publication-worthy performance responses she would give to The Company group members after our in-class performances; the incredibly detailed syllabus; her impassioned lectures on alienation effect and Elin Diamond’s “the true-real”; the thoughtfulness with which she worked with her graduate student TA. One thing that especially stands out to me is the informal course evaluation she offered to us at midterm; I can’t remember all the details now, but I think we answered three prompts: “what’s working, what’s not, and what would you change.” We came back from winter break, and then she actually went over our anonymized feedback with us, outlining how she would implement our feedback. And I remember the course (especially the scene study Thursdays) changing for the better from that point on.

This is something I try to remind myself of when I’m feeling down about my own teaching: how letting your students see you working hard for them can be just as effective as the mythic “perfectly-planned” course.
-C

Even then, I was so impressed that she cared to know what we thought before the course was over. Today, the informal midterm course evaluation is a key tool in my own pedagogical tool-kit! There are some semesters where I almost talk myself out of giving it, and then I think back to how seen and heard I felt in Kim’s class, and I am never disappointed with the results.

Kim

Oh my god the floundering! To this day I think of the crappiness of some of those classes, the epic time over-running, how I knew students must be so frustrated with how much I was very clearly overdoing it (#newteacher). Reading Colleen’s thoughts now – and about her memory of the midterm survey! Holy gosh! – honestly reminds me how valuable those early, overly earnest pedagogical tools were.

Many of them have morphed now, or fallen away from me; I rarely teach full-year classes anymore, so often talk myself out of surveying the students in mid-October or mid-February. Hearing Colleen’s take-away here – students need to feel seen and heard; they need to know they know things! That we are all learning together! – is a boost in the arm better than any flu jab. It’s a new lease on my own teaching.

Thanks, Colleen. Maybe from now on we can mentor each other.
-K