What We’re Taking With Us Part III: Concession and Absorbing Crisis (#ACsurvivalguide)

Dear Kim,

In your last post you wrote about resource sharing as one of the things you wanted to take with you into the post-COVID world.

That world that seems ominously far away as we dive into the third wave in Canada, but I am, nevertheless, picking up on the “carrying with us” thread. This is because I am both optimistic that the pandemic still has a horizon and also because the topic I want to explore here has been on my mind all week: concession.

In academia, “concession” is one of the many formal words (like “accommodation”) used to describe policies and practices that allow students to postpone and/or make-up, redo, or otherwise account for missed classes, assignments, or exams. While concession can apply to predictable absences or missed work (as a result of ordinary things like religious observances or work obligations), it often comes up in relation to crisis.

Thanks to the pandemic, the last year has been an extended exercise in crisis.

In my teaching, I’ve noticed two important things about our year in crisis:

1. All students (and teachers and administrators), even those who are excelling, are living in the middle of widespread societal crisis, whether we realize this moment-to-moment or not; and

2. As a result of #1, I’ve had ample opportunity to engage with concession policies at my university.

This engagement has helped me reframe my conceptualization of concession.

A new approach to an old problem.

In the spring 2020, the spread of COVID-19 resulted in the shutdown of in-person learning at many colleges and universities. A few students had the capacity and means to adjust to the changes: low care responsibilities, stable income and shelter, access to private work space, up-to-date technology, a sturdy WiFi connection. Most students did not, and barriers ranged from childcare and interpersonal responsibilities to technological issues to health and wellness challenges.

As a result of the sudden change, most institutions agreed that online learning in Spring 2021 was a crisis and enacted institution-wide policies such as pass fail options.

Then, in fall 2020, the state of crisis got a bit fuzzy. Colleges and universities acknowledged that virtual and hybrid learning models were not “business as usual” but most reverted to “normal” or near normal evaluation policies. Pass fail options were limited or restricted.

The institutional buffer was gone, but the barriers and challenges remained. By October, 2020 my inbox was filled with concession requests. There were so many, in fact, that they were hard to organize.

I didn’t feel good about only granting concession to the students asking. Certainly, students rarely turn down deadline extensions. But, when over half the class is sending panicked emails requesting them, that signals a larger problem.

So, I took a more global approach: I extended deadlines, shortened assignments, and created alternate options for all the students in a class. I won’t lie, however. I hesitated before each change, because every single adjustment involved additional labour for me. I forged forward anyway, however, because while my fall semester was busy, I was low on care responsibilities and feeling healthy and well. I knew I could take on the work.

This was not true for all of my colleagues and friends. They had to make different decisions.

This helped me identify one of the core facets of concession: the capacity to absorb labour.

Like a sponge, concession is all about absorbing the effects of a mess.

Beyond questions of definition (what constitutes a crisis), concession creates work for people. Sometimes, it creates work for a lot of people: the student who has to send emails and arrange meetings; the instructor who has to decide next steps; the administrator who has to communicate with both the student and the professor.

Who is willing and able to absorb the work of crisis?

Asking this question encouraged me to create concession policies that were both fair and low-labour for everyone. One of my proudest moments of the fall was going to the chair of my department to discuss a course-wide concession, wherein students could opt out of the final assignment and still do well in the course (within limits).

My idea was approved. And you know what? No one “worked the system.” Everyone who used the “off-ramp” needed it, and it was significantly less work for both me and the students as compared to my usual concession processes.

I wouldn’t necessarily use this precise concession again, but I will absolutely carry the principle with me. Concession is not only a question of fairness and evaluation; it is also a question of absorbing the work that crisis creates.

What about you, Kim? Has the pandemic helped you reframe any parts of your thinking?

My job and the climate crisis: thoughts on the structures that prevent us from going carbon-neutral

Two years ago last month I moved 125km down the highway from my campus office. I made this move for my own wellbeing: I was unhappy in the town where my university resides, and I wanted to be closer to the theatre and performance work in Toronto that I routinely see (and write about professionally). I also wanted to be closer to friends in Toronto, and to the ebb and flow of that city’s urban life.

There’s nothing controversial about choosing a city to live in, and then moving there; well, nothing controversial unless you’re an academic. Those of us inside the ivory tower learn quickly, when we apply to graduate school, that very little of the job is about picking a place to live; it’s all about picking the right program, and the right supervisor, at the university that’s a best fit for your research. WHERE that university is located is generally immaterial; in grad school, anyway, you can reason it’s an adventure and you’re there 5 years max.

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Another thing I get with my new home: close proximity to a landscape worth celebrating, playing in, and protecting. My work-life balance has really improved.

But if you follow this career path through, get *super* lucky and end up with a full time academic job, you realize the sting in this particular tail: the school that actually wants you and is about to throw an actual salary at you may not be in New York. Or Chicago, or San Francisco. Or Toronto. More likely it will be someplace quite far, both socially and culturally, from the places you most love and want to be. It may be really far from family and friends. It might even be in a community that is, at times, overtly hostile to your values, one that drains you from the inside.

But it’s still a job. Worse luck yet, it’s probably a really good job, a “dream” job. A job you need to take, because these jobs don’t grow on trees.

What happens to these insanely fortunate academics – people like me, with great jobs in cities they do not want to live in? Sometimes they make the best of it; I did for almost 10 years. Many of my friends in small-town or small-city universities tell me all the time how much they’ve grown to appreciate their new homes, and I respect that.

Sometimes they complain bitterly and on the regular, taking every chance to escape on city breaks at weekends (yup, also me).

And sometimes they decide to move away, and commute to campus part-time. This commute might be 50km, 100km, or 1000km long. Usually it’s a city-to-city commute, requiring cars, trains, and even airplanes to sustain.

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I googled “commuting is hell”.

There are lots of us commuting to my university; in fact, it sells itself to new recruits with its proximity to Toronto. A decent number of my departmental colleagues commute, and we are often kindly accommodated in our teaching and meeting schedules, others taking pains to recognize that we’re only within shooting distance of campus a couple of times a week.

So my commute is a privilege, and I recognize this. My ability to work half the time from home, the respect my employer shows for my commuting choice, and of course my financial ability to afford to commute: these are all things I know I have that many others do not.

But my commute has also opened my eyes, wide, to how poor our public transport systems and infrastructure in North America are, especially when you leave major urban corridors behind. It has opened my eyes to how hard it can be for my students to get to class on time, when they are relying on packed buses running tens of minutes behind schedule even in the heart of the city. It has revealed the incredible economic privilege it can take to get around exclusively by public transportation in this part of my country, when the car is often a far cheaper and easier (and bloody faster, more convenient) option.

It has also revealed to me what it might look and feel like to be not so fortunate as to be able to commute to one’s good academic job, but rather to be financially trapped in a place where the job is good enough, but the living is not really, on balance, living. (But hey, in the neoliberal universe, working *is* living, right?)

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Planes, Trains and Automobiles, 1987. Sadly, the train in this image looks way more modern than the average VIA service.

How do I get to work from my new home? For the first winter, I drove exclusively. This proved emotionally devastating in ways I did not expect. I was exhausted from the driving, even though there’s virtually no traffic on the very well-maintained highways lining my route. (Turns out going 120kph for 75 minutes is stressful. Who knew?) I kept leaving too late and running out of the house with the gas hob still on. (Fun fact: you can leave a gas burner, with nothing atop it, on for 12 hours and it’s fine.) Sometimes I was so drained from the teaching day that I’d get gas for the drive home and forget to shut the gas tank door.

So driving all the time wasn’t the best. It was, however, by far the cheapest option – at most $25 round trip in gas, vs at minimum $55 round trip on the train, and that’s the super-planning-ahead rate. By no small measure it was also the fastest and most convenient option. Still, I was increasingly aware of just how much bigger my carbon footprint was growing; between January 2018 and January 2019 I think I put 40,000km on my VW Golf. (That’s twice what insurance companies consider an annual norm for North America.)

Last winter, faced with my stark new carbon reality, I started investing in the train journey despite the costs and timing inconveniences. VIA, Canada’s national intercity carrier, serves my local commuter rail station with a service that goes a bare few times daily between Toronto and London, ON. I bought a raft of tickets during a Boxing Week sale, scheduling my outbound train for first thing in the morning and my return for last thing at night.

Why? Because these were the only services that fit with my (totally normal, mid-afternoon) teaching schedule, and they turned my four-hour teaching day into a 14-hour colossus.

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A glam shot of VIA’s “Rocky Mountaineer” snaking through the Jasper corridor. This is a holiday train. My train is not a holiday train.

The train proved saner, on balance, than the car: I could work on the train, relax and drink coffee rather than fretting about speeding, and I had plenty of time to schedule in stuff like yoga and visiting my elderly parents between classes and the departure home. So far, so middle-class work day.

But the train also came with added problems. For one, getting around town. I can walk to my campus office from the VIA station in about 50 minutes, which is pleasant on a warm winter morning but a real pain in the sleet and snow. The buses in London between downtown and campus are fine when they aren’t packed out and passing you by, but if I wanted to go from campus to my parents’ apartment the journey became a long, inconvenient ordeal for what is actually a 10-minute car ride. Taxis are ok, I guess, but they add up, and my commute was already costing me at least $300/month – not peanuts. Full size bikes are not allowed on the VIA, and there’s no bike share scheme in LonON.

I was feeling eco-friendly and also stranded.

When winter turned to spring and summer, my commute relaxed and I settled into research work in my home office, forgetting about the winter’s challenges. But then the extreme weather systems returned. “Climate change” became “the climate crisis”, and students rose up around the world to ask people of my generation to take it much, much more seriously.

Greta Thunberg sailed across the Atlantic in a carbon-neutral vessel, and got vitriolic attacks from privileged adults about the gall of her. I looked at her and thought two things: a) what an admirable young woman; b) wow, I wonder how many people on earth can commandeer a carbon-neutral sailboat for their trip to the UN.

This past August, I decided to commit to riding the train every day in term time that the option was available to me. I bought a Tern folding bicycle, taking the cash for the purchase from my commute budget. (These bikes are not cheap, and again I feel privileged to have been able to save for it.) I’ve now had a month of commuting with Titania (yup, I name all the bikes, and they are all bad-ass women), and it’s made a huge difference to my work days.

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Titania, my new Tern folding bike, on the platform at my local station.

My point with this post is not to humblebrag about my eco-creds, nor to celebrate the nifty expensive things I’ve done to enable my posh commute. Not by a long shot.

Instead, I want to highlight how challenging it has been, even for a very fortunate and well paid professional like me, to create a life where my job doesn’t stop me living in a place I want to be, and doesn’t in the process add thousands and thousands of tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere.

I also want to highlight how easy it is to look away from these problems when you have a certain level of privilege and can just get on with driving the car and throwing money at the problem. This looking-away choice does not make you a bad person; it makes you a human in this world, where the structures of living and working have for so long been directed away from community care, care of the planet, and care of one another. The “bad” choice is almost never really a choice; it’s half a necessity.

Contrary to the popular discourse surrounding her, if Greta Thunberg shows us one thing clearly it is that the climate emergency, like the neoliberal superstructures that have abetted it, is not something individuals can solve: the solution will take real change at the highest levels of government and a firm commitment from whole communities to come out in solidarity for change.

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A screenshot (likely illegal, tbh) of a fantastic recent cartoon about Greta Thunberg by First Dog On The Moon. Go here to read the whole thing.

Thunberg’s rise has demonstrated clearly that the climate crisis is not something all individuals are privileged enough to be able to address in equal measure; she knows she’s damn lucky to have had that carbon-neutral Atlantic crossing, and she is always at pains to remind people that her advocacy is not about her. Let’s not vilify her and students like her for their rising voices, and let’s not use their vocal protest as an excuse to do nothing ourselves.

Instead, let’s examine our choices not just for how they might change, but also for how they are structurally restricted from changing. Then, let’s use our discoveries about those structural problems to power further advocacy, on our campuses and in our broader communities, in solidarity with students, less fortunate friends and colleagues, and many more. We can do better by each other and by the planet – but, as with most things, only together.

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

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

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

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A gorgeous image from City Studio Abbotsford.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile, stay cool!

Kim

 

Decolonizing the syllabus, part 2: so it ain’t perfect, but I am working on it

Back in September I wrote about what I might characterize as my teaching, as well as my personal, goal for F/W 2018-19: to try to decolonize my syllabi as much as possible.

I talked in detail in that post about my brand-new course, “Toronto: Culture and Performance.” That class took a group of 40 students – plus one keen international graduate student auditor, one TA-extraordinaire, and me – to the city down the highways five times over the course of 13 weeks to see five amazing shows. We also read a diverse bunch of authors writing about Toronto’s theatre ecology, held a fantastic workshop with one of the Toronto Star‘s theatre critics, and created some pretty amazing final projects, including several remarkable creative ones.

I just loved that class and cannot wait to teach it again.

One of the reasons I loved it was because I felt, every week, like I was living up to my goal of working against the colonial drift. With the luxury of a totally new prep, a course I had designed entirely from scratch, I could map a landscape that looked as decolonized as I could hope for.

The course began by foregrounding Indigeneity as central to any labour on theatre and performance in a settler-colonial state; it continued by centralizing non-White and non-dominant voices in the majority of the work we read and saw. When we did encounter dominant or “mainstream” voices, we therefore had the tools to ask critical questions about how our expectations about cultural value and theatrical “quality” in Anglophone North America are shaped by the normalization of White, straight, and cis experience.

(I’m particularly proud of a class discussion we held after seeing Anosh Irani’s not-entirely-successful Mumbai + Vancouver-set Men in White at Factory Theatre. That discussion began with a completely reasonable [and predictable] group whinge about stock characters and a perceived lack of nuance, but eventually reached a deep reflection on how genre can be an agent of colonialism. We ended that day by asking why many artists of colour might feel a pressure, or even a need, to tell their stories inside the generic frame of Western realism, aka the “well made play”, even when that frame does not suit their stories.)

the-men-in-white

But, of course, not all courses do we get to bake from scratch, right? Some we inherit. Sometimes that inheritance is nimble and exciting. Sometimes it’s a dire mess, but the idea of  renovating it, especially under time pressure, is overwhelming.

Sometimes – and I think this is the worst scenario, personally – the course is FINE but also not the best it could be. You’re aware of this but you’re also exhausted. You *could* do something with it, but you could also leave it – the students will still learn. You’re still a good teacher; you’ll still get them to the questions they need to be asking.

This is especially hard and upsetting when the course is one that you, some time ago, designed from scratch.

I’d been planning, since September, to totally revamp my History of Performance Theory class, a winter term module I began teaching four years ago. This course has needed work for a while, and I’ve known it; it’s littered with Aristotle and The Usual Post-Aristotelian Subjects, it’s way too White, and it’s boring. I’ve struggled with the readings, struggled with finding effective ways to demonstrate the readings in practice, and struggled with setting performance-based assessments that effectively allow the students to enact, and thereby own, the theory.

trump

Trump and/as Aristotle. Sigh. What role the Dead White Dude in an anti-colonial performance theory syllabus?

Basically, the course is a dumpster fire, from my perspective. But, again: the students have consistently enjoyed it, and probably would do again. Nevertheless, I determined This. Was. The. Year. I would retool it completely! I would start in September!

But then, stuff intervened: personal stuff that had to be prioritized, in the moment, above redoing a winter teaching prep. When late December hit and I’d managed both to ride out that stuff and rest a bit, I realized I only had about a week to totally decolonize that nasty, white-washed pile of teaching poo sitting on the corner of my desk.

trumparistotle300

Nope. Still depressing.

What to do? I knew I couldn’t really do anything like a proper job of reorganizing the course in a week. Remarkably, though, it was when I faced down the reality of my shortened time frame that I finally realized how much of a process the decolonizing of this course – really, of ANY existing, kinda-fine-but-not-quite course – needed to be. This was a process I could begin in December 2018 with integrity, but not finish – perhaps not finish for some time. And maybe that’s ok.

So I got to work on the beginning.

First, I asked myself what I wanted a decolonized version of this class to look like. Beyond inviting students to read texts from multiple perspectives across the centuries, what did I want the class to do?

I came up with a list.

  1. The class needs to empower the students, giving them a sense of ownership over the material and their experience of it. (This is especially key in theory classes, which can be intimidating and quickly become divided: some “get it” right away, while others remain confused and feel bad about themselves as a result.)
  2. The class needs not to hierarchize readings, in which the old White guys appear to be “first” or “top” or “most key”.
  3. The class should not be entirely chronological. While some then-to-now is important for understanding globally rich concepts (like “mimesis” and its politics), working by theme rather than temporally means shifting students’ idea of where history “is” and whether or not we, too, are part of history right now.
  4. The class needs to be as much about learning to read theory, and to use it in ways that are fun and relevant, as about “taking in” the “great ideas” of historical thought. In other words: the class needs to take as given that theory is hard but worthwhile, and therefore it’s our shared responsibility to make sense of it as a team.

This list turned out to be a really helpful starting point. It allowed me to make a plan with both my and the students’ needs in mind. (Remarkably, I wonder: do I really always foreground student needs when I plan a class? DO I?) In turn this plan led to me to do three things toward decolonizing the syllabus that I’m feeling good about. It’s still early days, but so far so good.

Here’s what I did:

First, I turned to the question of readings. Back in October, when life things were really starting to hit the fan for me, I re-ordered the textbook I have previously used for this class: Daniel Gerould’s Theatre/Theory/Theatre. It’s imperfect but also just fine, and I figured that, if needed, I could make it work better for me than it had done in the past.

I was right: looking carefully at the table of contents, I realized that, while Gerould prioritizes the Anglo-European tradition, he does include a handful of non-Western sources in the book – enough to make a critical mass if used carefully.

theatre-theory-theatre

Professor Gerould’s theatre theory textbook. The introductions remain a highlight for me!

I selected a number of readings that I wanted to see on the course, ranging from Aristotle and Sidney (benchmark Western writers) to Brandi Wilkins Catanese and Jen Harvie (contemporary women writing about the politics of race and labour in performance, respectively). I slotted these into early and later weeks. (Here, the chronology makes sense for me, as Catanese and Harvie will allow us to return to “old” ideas late in the term and chart their contemporary iterations.)

Then, for the weeks in between, I returned to a practice I’ve used in the past (and which Anna Griffith also talks about in her December post on her performance history class). I’d let the students select half of the readings from a list I’d curate (thus offering them security in choice). I picked four weeks for “Students’ Choice” and gathered 12 potential readings for these. These potentials included a deliberately diverse range of authors: all of the non-Western readings in Gerould, plus an Indigenous, female, Toronto-based playwright, an Egyptian-Canadian, male artist from Vancouver, and a prominent feminist performance scholar. These weeks were broadly “themed” (IE: acting theory; theatre and social justice), but beyond that the options ranged from ancient to of-the-moment and everywhere in between.

In our second class of the term, we spent a full hour exploring our reading options in small groups and making selections. In three groups, the students read several pages of four potential texts, debated their relative merits, and then presented their top choices to the class. As I predicted, the students went for majority non-White, non-normative choices in every case – but they did so for a number of reasons (including complementarity, interest in the topic, readability, and more), and not just because I, the teacher, said that would be “good” for them to read “diverse” voices. (It turns out that’s what they wanted to do, in any case!)

So we’ve now got a really rich range of readings – Aristotle; Bharata; Jani Lauzon; Philip Sidney; Li Yu; Jill Dolan; Augusto Boal; Bertolt Brecht; Marcus Youssef; Catanese; and Harvie – in that order. And the readings are majority students’ choice, so the class can feel a sense of ownership over them. My hope is that the challenges the readings will pose will seem, if not more doable, then definitely more worth working on, because of that.

Second, I created a handful of research questions to serve as a lens we can use to approach any text. These are listed in the course description at the top of the syllabus, as well as at the top of the week-by-week schedule. They are:

Who or what is allowed to be represented, and why?

Is this representation “good” for us, and why or why not? What exactly should representation “do”?

Should audiences think, or feel? Enjoy, or learn? Is there a third option?

I’ve told the students that these questions return again and again in performance theory, and that we will encounter a number of responses to them. At the same time, we should be thinking about our own responses to them: who is represented around us now, and how, and to what end? Is this representation “good” for those who are represented? For us? Who decides? Why does it matter?

Having these research questions in place as a baseline means we always have somewhere to go, if things get complicated. Don’t understand why Aristotle keeps changing his mind about whether or not “spectacle” is ok? Ask yourself: who does he think should be allowed to be represented? What does he think the audience is supposed to get out of it? Why might he feel this way? These benchmark questions offer a reading lifeline, while also raising issues that are essential to get on the table if we are going to try to make sense of theory cross-culturally.

Finally, I devised a broad assessment framework: explain, apply, and extend. Actually, I’ve used this framework before, but never as holistically as this year. Rather than just set a task (or a series of tasks) where students need to explain, apply, and extend a piece of theory, I’ve this year turned the framework into a model for our classroom working practice across the term.

At the centre of this model are three 500-word tasks where students will “explain” a theory (very basic, but important – that’s the point), “apply” a different theory (find an example of the theory in practice, from anywhere they like, and talk about it), and “extend” a third theory (push or question its parameters).

To bolster students’ confidence and demonstrate these tasks thoroughly, each week I am organizing my class prep into three roughly 1-hour chunks, one devoted to each of the tasks for the theory up that week.

Because the “explain” and “extend” portions of this work are likely to feature a lot of me talking, I’ve decided the “apply” portion of each week should be driven by the class. Students are invited to post rough-and-ready demonstrations of the theory in practice to our class website by 10pm on Wednesdays, and not to worry about whether or not they’ve got it “right”. Every post, provided it includes an example and a short description of why it was chosen, earns 2% out of a possible 10% for the “online prompt response” assessment. So making five honest attempts to “apply” a theory earns full marks, because the point of this assessment is not to “get it,” but to contribute to our class discussion in a fulsome way. (Note: this assessment is not the same as the “apply” task I note above. It’s meant to be low-stakes practice for it.)

(One student’s clever “apply” post to our class website last week: Rose and the Doctor as evidence of what Aristotle means by “the probable.”)

I’ve done other things, too, to help shape a classroom environment that offers students as much ownership over their experience as possible, while also prioritizing typically unheard voices both in the room and in our readings: students will write participation reflections and come talk to me about their participation practice in my office at mid-term; there’s no final exam, but rather a group performance project that will allow students to choose a play (from three options) they want to work on, and select into a performance group based on that choice; we’re already in the habit of moving our classroom furniture each week into configurations that allow for student-centred learning.

I hope to write about these other things in later posts, and I’ll share updates about the class – how it’s feeling for me; how it’s going for the students – during the term too. I don’t pretend this is anywhere near what I’d like it to ultimately be, but I think it’s a good start. I’m also hoping the students will help me to see what needs changing as we go, so that I can keep this particular syllabus-decolonization project in motion.

Meanwhile, stay warm!

Kim