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

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!]

 

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.

teachingmistakes

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.

workgroup-collaboration

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!]