The Work of Experiential Learning

In my last post, about decolonizing my syllabus, I talked about a new class I’m teaching this autumn. Called “Toronto: Culture and Performance”, it’s an experiential learning course where my TA and I accompany our students on five trips to the city to see a wide variety of work, primarily made by theatre companies focused on intercultural labour (that is: on working across difference to embody the city’s proper diversity, as well as to represent that diversity complexly to audience members).

I pitched the class to my department about 18 months ago, and I was thrilled to get the chance to teach it. Better yet, I’m thrilled with the students I’ve got in its first iteration, who are smart, engaged, present, and committed. They come from three different programs across our faculty and their own internal diversity supports exciting class discussion. I’m also truly thrilled with and grateful to my TA, Courtney, who has already proved herself both heroic and indispensable. (Thanks so much, Courtney!)

So all is roses, yes?

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Well, no. There’s a problem. It’s not an insurmountable problem, but it’s one I think we need to talk more about, and soon.

Everyone in the academy wants experiential learning right now, and all the time. It’s something students ask for at university fairs and expos: do you have internships? Can I do an exchange? Is there study-abroad? And with the rise of the cult of “creativity” (something linked to the post-industrial engagement economy), that means profs like me – who both care about our students’ experiences, and want our students to like and appreciate us (in person and, ahem, on the evals) – have our work really cut out for us.

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Labour.

Nobody talks much about the insane amounts of extra labour that go into programming an experiential learning course – labour that is often high-stakes, emotionally amped-up; labour that is often foreign to lecturers not used to, say, organizing massive blocks of group travel or handling large amounts of money as a result.

I had a first taste of this experiential overload when I took 12 students to London for 15 days in the summer of 2017. What seemed an amazing teaching assignment quickly revealed itself to be logistically complicated, and emotionally profoundly draining. Teachers who have never run a study abroad class (and this was me until spring 2017, believe me) assume it’s lots of fun. (Whoa – free international travel!) Sure it is – but also it is not. From curating the students’ experiences, to running their debrief lessons, to arranging for, meeting, hosting, and paying the guest presenters, to protecting students fearful of harm in the big city, to protecting students from themselves (and oh yes, we had this too), it is mostly just appallingly tiring.

I could never, ever have predicted the total mind-body exhaustion I felt upon that course ending – along with, of course, feelings of sorrow at having to say goodbye to an amazing group of young women.

It took me more than a month to recover.

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These feelings of mind-body exhaustion I’m feeling again this autumn. Though the logistics of TO:C&P are nowhere near as complex as the London class, the group is also more than three times as large.

Here’s what I’m responsible for: buying and receiving all the theatre tickets; booking all the buses and liaising with the bus company before each journey; collecting all of the students’ ancillary course fees; ensuring all the students pay those fees; and ensuring all the students get to and from our field trips safely and with every head accounted for.

But wait, there’s more!

Because Toronto is a two-hour-plus drive from Western, we need to leave ahead of our scheduled class time in order to ensure we are comfortably on time for each show. (The course runs Tuesday evenings, as a three-hour block, so that on our field trip days the show IS the class.) This means a handful of students (roughly 10) had conflicts with other classes and commitments in the late afternoon that required sorting. I worked with them on all of these, sometimes negotiating directly with other instructors to ensure students could be accommodated and still remain in both my class and theirs.

And more still!

Because the course was full for most of August, the cap having been doubled in July due to demand, and because 45+ tickets per order is a lot to ask of small theatres, I discovered that I had to book and pay (with the help of my also-heroic colleague in our office, Beth) for most tickets in advance. Naturally, some students dropped the course before the first field trip, and thus owed us nothing; I then realized I was stuck holding their batch of tickets and costs owing. So I now had to unload those tickets to make up the shortfall, lest we run a deficit. (I spent the first two weeks of September anxiously watching the course numbers each morning, praying students would stay with me so I wouldn’t have to do yet more salesmanship/fundraising. By this point, I WAS ALREADY PRETTY TIRED.)

Oh, yes. And of course: I also have to actually teach the course.

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Now I know that the above list is going to sound weird to some of you – for example, those of you in Theatre departments who have a team of staff that assist with this kind of labour for field trips as a routine. It might also sound both odd and grim to those of you with really robust tools in place at your schools to govern how faculty and staff labour is allocated around experientially-driven courses.

But I suspect for others, it will ring painfully true. Because what happened to me was the same thing that happens all the time in the modern university: an instructor gets a cool idea for a great, stimulating course, sets about creating it, and discovers in the process that systems that ought to be in place to support this kind of creative teaching really are not in place, or are not as robust as they need to be, and probably can’t be funded properly anyway.

Often, of course, it takes the front-end labour of running these kinds of courses once or twice before their system-altering needs become clear; then (if you are lucky), your unit innovates to help you out. But just as often, in my experience, you innovate and are told what a good job you’ve done, and are then invited to do it all again, more or less all alone, again.

Welcome back, invisible teaching overload.

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I want to stop here and say that I am very well aware that I am enormously privileged to be able to teach courses like the ones I describe above. In the case of the London course (“Destination Theatre”), I had administrative help from the Student Success Centre on campus, as well as from our international learning team, which funded the course’s development very generously. For TO:C&P, I received monetary support from all of the participating departments, and that allowed me to cut the students’ auxiliary fees almost in half. I also want to acknowledge that I am a salaried and tenured professor and therefore hardly poorly compensated for my labour in any case.

Third, I want to recognize that I’ve had a lot of words of support from different folks around me these last few weeks, and we will certainly be debriefing the class, discussing future best practices, and hopefully implementing at least some of them to streamline the work and take some of the liability out of my hands next time.

But the fact remains: I made an experiential learning course and got dropped into an abyss of labour I had not really expected. Why?

Because we style experiential learning as “fun”, not as “work”.

This is a familiar song in the neoliberal university playbook. Please source and deliver internships! Please create value-added courses with exciting field trip components! Please develop a study-abroad capstone – so cool to go abroad with students! In other words: please take on the extra work “creativity” requires in order that we can be seen to be delivering happy info-sumers primed to make their own mark on the engagement economy, where experience is everything. We will love you, LOVE YOU, for it! Even if the resources we can offer you aren’t really sufficient relative to the work expected of you, and even if there’s no way we can acknowledge in your ordinary workload what an extra lot of logistical, organizational, and emotional labour the course will generate.

Obviously, this is not a problem unique to my university, where, to be honest, though my faculty is cash-strapped to the max, squeezed hard, and in real pain, my chair and my dean really did their best by TO:C&P. Rather, this is a problem of the moment we are in: profs far and wide have become university “entertainers,” curators of exceptional experiences in an economy where the arts is valued hypothetically for its power to undergird a “creative” economy, but is rarely valued monetarily to match. This remains especially true in the arts programs that support some of the most exciting experiential programming on our campuses, where the squeeze from dropping enrolments in the age of STEM-ification has meant fewer resources with which to be ever more spectacular. STEAM success stories aside, we remain poor cousins in flashy costumes, exhausted from all the late-night stitching.

I’m sketching here the link between my current fatigue and a systemic problem that is far too complex to solve in a blog post (as if anything every got solved in a blog post!).

So, what can we do, on the ground, right now?

I’m going to say we can share our stories. We can talk openly, and regularly, and both inside and outside our departments, about the massive amounts of extra work that cool new course I created has made, and for whom. (My TA is doing a lot of the in-course logistics, and I am so, so grateful to her, but that also means she has less time to do pedagogically more thoughtful work, and I’m painfully aware of this.) We can repeat the course’s (fun! but also complicated!) story to the administrators we know. We can say it to our union reps. And we can share it with our students. We can let them know the work behind the glittering curtain is not nothing; we can invite them to press the university, through their student unions, for more support – and for more transparent, easily accessible, visible and equitable support – for experiential learning course development across all units.

Thank goodness I now see, finally, a light at the end of the tunnel. TO:C&P is up and running: the shows are fun and the students terrific, and almost all have paid their fees. I’ve offloaded enough tickets to break us even, more or less. I can breathe again.

But with that fresh air also comes the gratitude of knowing I’m tenured and salaried, not on contract. I can’t imagine the precarity of doing all of this extra work without job security; I can’t imagine finding the courage to speak up about under-resourcing under those circumstances. Which means that the effort we put in now – as securely employed teachers – to draw the labour of the university’s experience economy into the light, and to demand it be better funded, will be of enormous benefit down the line.

Because I bet if I was a contract instructor assigned to this course, I’d really appreciate how much fun it is to teach, too.

I’m going to bed! See ya,

Kim

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Decolonizing the syllabus, part 1

Welcome to autumn! I’ve been away for a lot of the summer, but I hope to post at least twice a month until April. As ever, if you wish to pitch a guest post, just use the “about” page to get in touch!

***

It started a while back, maybe two years ago. I stopped loving what I was teaching in my undergraduate-level Performance Theory seminar.

I taught from a textbook that is relatively diverse, all things considered – which is to say, it includes a handful of not-Western texts, mostly from before the 20th century. There are one (maybe two?) text(s) by women. It is a good book, though it was not designed as a comprehensive history; rather, it was designed as a “representative” one – representative, really, of the theatrical theory “we” have always learned, and are meant to pass along.

I have always taught in what I would characterize as a fashion skewed against accepted norms: I’ve flipped the classroom since way back, preferred the knowledge we make in class together to any knowledge I could impart in long lectures, and whenever my students and I have read “colonial” (read “canonical”, for the most part) texts, I have tried to uncover the places where those texts do things we might not expect, and provoke questions we may not have thought to ask. In particular, I flag up moments when persons unseen enter the text by stealth – women, queer persons, workers, persons of colour – and encourage students to talk about what their spectral presence might signify.

Of course, I also supplement the textbooks I use with things I’m reading in my research, and with articles and books that have been important to me throughout my career. Though my Performance Theory seminar is technically a “history of” class, I have always included at least four weeks on contemporary authors, drawing out questions of gender and sexuality, race and social status, labour and emotion as these things are considered and theorized by my peers in the discipline.

But roughly two years ago, this strategy stopped working for me. I felt far too keenly the whiteness, the maleness, the traditional-ness, of the early part of the course – and I felt uncomfortable about its influence on the term as a whole.

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That’s when I realized that what I needed was to decolonize my syllabus.

There’s a lot of talk right now about what it means to participate in living, breathing, ongoing forms of colonial injustice – to inhabit it, push back against it, question it, fight it, and survive it. Serena Williams’ recent travails at the French and US Open tournaments make a superb, painfully visible case in point. The treatment she has received in the press and on social media (for her completely legitimate clothing choices and for her entirely reasonable expressions of anger) smacks bitterly of race-based profiling that can be traced quite easily and directly back to the legacies of European colonialism beginning in the fifteenth century.

Even today, in 2018, Black women are treated with significantly more patronizing hostility than are white women, or men of any colour, full stop: that’s living, breathing colonialism, right here and now.

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Serena Williams is a strong Black woman and a star. She is consistently white-washed in gross and unfair reactions to her body, performance, and actions in the media. That’s our colonial present for you.

For us on Turtle Island (also known to some as North America), questions of decolonization are particularly urgent because the practices of settler colonialism impact the daily well being, the living memories, and the future potential of hundreds of thousands of our indigenous fellow citizens. Each of us on this land who does not trace our roots to an indigenous community on Turtle Island is a settler, though few of us realize what that means, or understand the uneven distribution of privilege it affords (in settlers’ favour).

For me as a resident settler Canadian, settler colonialism is an everyday reality to which it is all too easy to turn a blind eye. Therefore, it is a shared reality that also requires calling attention to, excavating, and thinking through in my classrooms. I need to do this excavating and thinking-through with and alongside my students, and decolonizing the structure of my classes is a necessary first step in that labour.

But: how to do that, effectively?

Around the same time that I became aware of my need and desire to make these syllabus (and attendant course) changes, I got an email from my dear friend and colleague Natalie Alvarez. She was convening an online working group with syllabus decolonization in mind, geared toward helping one another develop new ways to approach teaching theatre history in Canada. Would I like to join? I eagerly accepted the invitation, knowing my performance theory seminar would benefit immensely from this collaborative labour.

Most of us in the group are settler scholars; a couple of our brilliant and generous indigenous colleagues joined too, however, and one of them, Dylan Robinson, set the tone for our group with a pointed post about the central challenge we faced. Why start where we’ve always started? He asked. Why not upend entirely the field of inquiry, start with the “other” stuff and make it central instead of peripheral?

The most basic problem, he highlighted for us, is not that there are white dudes all over our courses (though that IS a problem, and jettisoning them is no bad thing). The most basic problem is that we let these white dudes set the tone, frame the question, and thus – as I had already felt uncomfortably in my seminar – shape the term’s work. Every time.

What if we let a woman of colour, or an indigenous scholar or artist, do that privileged labour instead? What if the white dudes were required to dialogue with them, rather than the other way around? What if indigenous world views became the backbone of the course’s ecosystem, and colonial knowledge systems were required to take a back seat for once?*

The incredibly talented Inuk musician and activist Tanya Tagaq – one of the fiercest forces of decolonization in Canadian music and performance. Check her out here. (You will not regret it.)

Dylan’s prompt left me feeling revitalized, and able to do the work ahead. Because my Performance Theory seminar is a second-term course, I decided to leave the questions of exactly which texts to assign in that course to percolate for a couple of months. Then, I set about planning the new course I’m teaching this fall.

“Toronto: Culture and Performance” is an experiential learning course in which I take 40 students the 200km to Toronto five times in the term to see theatre of all kinds and talk with artists and arts administrators. It’s a TONNE of work, but also a labour of love for me, as it’s an adaptation of the terrific and popular “London: Culture and Performance” module taught at Queen Mary, UL (where I used to work). As a bona-fide new prep, this course was the ideal place for me to trial a decolonizing classroom paradigm; moreover, because its syllabus is driven by what Toronto is showcasing on its stages this autumn, I already knew I was going to be programming a bunch of awesome intercultural work by amazing queer artists and artists of colour.

Wearing the hat Dylan’s post handed me, I decided immediately that we’d open the class with a trip to Native Earth Performing Arts, Canada’s oldest professional indigenous theatre company, to see actor-writer Jani Lauzon’s new work I Call Myself Princess. To prepare, we will read brand-new work on the intercultural city by my settler colleague Ric Knowles, and we will look at indigenous performance through a specifically indigenous lens with a reading by Anishanaabe/Ashkenazi scholar and artist Jill Carter. From there, we will see a revival of the brilliant Gertrude and Alice at Buddies in Bad Times, Toronto’s iconic queer house, and read about its history from lesbian artist-scholar Moynan King’s perspective; only then will we move on to more “mainstream” venues (and then, principally in order to talk about urban theatres and economics). Later, we will return to questions of intercultural practice at Factory Theatre, which has been for several years at the forefront of remaking Toronto theatre’s image as “The Great White North”. The end-of-term treat is Come From Away, the smash-hit musical about 9/11 in Newfoundland.

To set the tone for the term on the syllabus proper, I rewrote my course description as a series of questions for us to keep coming back to:

What’s a “global city”? Is Toronto one? How does the theatre that appears on Toronto’s stages contribute to, or maybe even contest, Toronto’s “global city” aspirations?

What’s an “intercultural city”? Is Toronto one? How do the performing arts help to shape the intercultural structures that now identify Toronto to Torontonians, and to the world? For whom are those structures liberating – and whom do those structures still leave behind?

What does economics have to do with theatre? Is theatre a viable business? How and when and why? What does theatre economics have to do with other kinds of urban economics – like, say, real estate?

What about memory? How does the theatre shape our memories (personal, communal, historical) of the city and its inhabitants? What about space? How does theatre literally help to “make” (that is, to shape and contour) a city like Toronto? What about labour? Who works in the creative economy in Toronto, what do they do, and how is their work valued (or not)?

Then, right after the logistical stuff about where the class meets and where to find me and my TA, Courtney, I offered four land acknowledgements. Here’s the preamble:

Land is a big part of what we are going to be talking about when we talk about Toronto, culture, and performance: who works on it, how their work is valued, who is recognized as fully human in the city, who is ignored, left out, stepped over. Acknowledging the politics of our inhabiting the land is an important part of starting our work on all of these scores.

Below are four land acknowledgements: from Western University; from Native Earth Performing Arts in Toronto; from Kim; and from Courtney. On our first day together you’ll be encouraged to make your own land acknowledgement. It can take any form you wish, as long as it is both respectful and accurate.

My goal, in both making my own land acknowledgement and in foregrounding several different land acknowledgements on the syllabus, was to introduce the “politics of place” as central to our course labour, and also to introduce those politics as personal, as a responsibility for every one of us in the classroom. I wanted to make “place” personal, and to invite students to think about their relationships to land, and to the feelings “place” evokes for them, as a matter of the standard labour of a normal university course. I wanted to help them think – early and often! – about the unseen and maybe even unfelt elements of place that enable their connections to it. For that reason, we spent the first ten minutes of our first class warming up, creating sculptures with our bodies that represented the way we feel when we are in “our” cities (where our cities might be any city, big or small, that we call “ours”). We then spent the next half hour introducing ourselves by talking about our relationships to the places evoked by the body sculptures we’d made.

My goal in my classes is always to create a sense of community: of shared investment and shared learning, founded on respect and care for one another. This year, as I focus specifically on making my classrooms an inviting place to challenge the settler-colonial commonplaces many of us take for granted (and which enable so much of our settler privilege), I hope to help students develop respect and care not just for one another, but for the unseen faces around us on the (in southwestern Ontario, treaty) land we occupy.

I’ll write more posts about my decolonization project as the term advances, letting you know how it’s going, good and bad. I’ll also share some of the strategies I’m trying out in my Performance Studies seminar, where we have begun by intentionally marginalizing the traditionally most dominant male voices in the field, in order to open with perspectives on the discipline – and on the politics of discipline-making itself – by four female scholars, including two Canadians. Those women are all white, though – something I realized after the syllabus was set, and something that reminds me I’ve still got far to go.

With anticipation and hope for a good term,

Kim

*There’s a lot of writing about decolonizing the classroom on the web, with lots of different perspectives on offer. I quite enjoyed reading this, an account of a panel discussion on the topic earlier this year at Ryerson University in Toronto. The panel foregrounds the importance of indigenous/non-indigenous collaboration in the classroom and in pedagogical planning, something I very much endorse and would love to participate in.

 

 

More collaborative writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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(The fabulous Keira Loughran)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kim

Who decides?

I know it’s autumn, because lots of great theatre has been happening around me. I was recently in Big London and saw the hands-up-incredible (student!) production The Fall, as well as the incredibly moving The Unknown Island (which my colleague Dan Rebellato and I discuss in an upcoming episode of his podcast, Stage Directions – stay tuned for that one). Back home in Ontario I caught The Komagata Maru Incident at the Stratford Festival, thought-provokingly directed by Keira Loughran, and, last Sunday, Other Side of the Game by Amanda Parris, directed by Nigel Shawn Williams in an Obsidian Theatre/Cahoots Theatre co-production.

These last two shows were remarkable for me in the way they normalized the practice of diversity on stage – something I’ve been thinking a lot about since the “Post-Marginal” symposium I attended back in April (read my thoughts on that event here).

Canadians are used to “diversity” as a brand – part of the hip and multicultural, Justin-fronted salad-bowl nation. Yay Canada! Except maybe less yay Canada if you are, you know, a visible, ethnic, or other minority (including those who identify as disabled) and are constantly on the receiving end of subtle or not-so-subtle discrimination, well-meaning but superficial curiosity that borders on harassment, or, in more cases than we care to acknowledge, gruesome racial profiling.

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Justin hearts diversity. But it’s really not that easy, people.

All the more reason to get over talking about diversity as “a good thing” (says the brilliant Donna-Michelle St Bernard, someone I never tire of quoting), and to start thinking about it as a practice – an artistic practice, an intellectual practice, a pedagogical practice, and a practice of ordinary citizenship.

But how do we do that, really do that?

How can artists, scholars, and teachers model diversity-as-practice for others, as a necessary public good?

These two shows struck me as just such models. But then they also, inevitably, got me fretting about how to talk about them effectively as such. To communicate this modelling of diversity-in-practice as central to what they do, accomplish, offer to the public sphere.

That’s separate, a very separate, issue from whether or not they are any “good” as pieces of theatre.

[And btw, I think they both really are.]

This is all a slightly roundabout way of saying that these two productions got me fretting about theatre reviews – and in particular about the kinds of power reviewers wield, for better and sometimes for worse, as they more or less just do their jobs.

Reviewing is hard; I know this from personal experience. It’s a huge responsibility, and the reviewers I know (including for the major Toronto dailies) take that responsibility very seriously indeed.

But reviews as a genre embed some big problems. For me, the largest one is this: they are required to level judgement every time, but they are not typically flexible enough to unpack the question that ghosts that very quotidian act of judgement:

Who has the authority to decide what is “good” theatre?

What are our criteria, and why?

I was really upset to read the reviews for Komagata Maru Incident. Some of them very correctly pointed out that the play itself – which was written decades ago, and is about a boat full of Sikh migrants turned away from the shores of British Columbia in 1914 – comes from a settler perspective (that of white playwright Sharon Pollock), and lacks the capacity in its dramaturgical structure to represent refugee experience in a thoroughgoing way. Others, however, were unnecessarily rough on Loughran and her team. One was truly mean, and bordered, in my opinion, on an abuse of the reviewer’s power.

Why did these harsh reviews drive me around the bend? Because what Loughran had done in her direction of Pollock’s play was infuse it with an ethos of inclusivity and diversity, in an effort to decolonize the problematic script.

Quelemia Sparrow in The Komagata Maru Incident, Stratford, 2017

The production was far from perfect, in lots of ways the reviews captured. But it was also incredibly important as a piece of public engagement – and this the reviews either downplayed or missed.

Loughran’s cast were, in the vast majority, actors of colour. Her emcee/narrator figure was the stunningly talented Musqueam artist Quelemia Sparrow, whose evocative physicality contributed to a useful distancing of the play’s central voice of authority from its governing settler imagination. Sparrow played the role as a “traditional” (read “imaginary”) Indian figure overtly costumed as a British officer; the only authority she therefore inhabited was performative, the ability to talk herself into authority – as all imperialists do. (There’s a quite good reflection piece on this casting choice in the London Free Press; click here to take a look.)

The “real” officer figure in the play, the Immigration Department’s Hopkinson, was embodied with studied, well judged awkwardness by Omar Alex Khan, who is also not white and not British; as he and Sparrow interacted (she inhabiting the role of his superiors in these meetings) I saw and heard “Britishness” as an effect of settler colonialism, loud and clear.

Meanwhile, the most moving relationship in the play developed between Diana Tso and Jasmine Chen playing ambitious immigrant women in a Vancouver brothel. There were moments when I wondered if Chen, Tso, and Loughran had layered lesbian desire into these portrayals, and I was grateful for the prompt to think differently about what could otherwise seem conventionally sexualized Asian female characters.

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Diana Tso, Jasmine Chen, and Omar Alex Khan in The Komagata Maru Incident, 2017

In other words, I saw a lot that was rich and instructive and worth talking about in this show. Stuff that the reviews were not able, given their generic constraints, to capture.

Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago, when my friend Keith Tomasek, who edits Stratford Festival Reviews, asked me to review Other Side of the Game, which is about Black lives, and in particular Black women’s lives, historical and contemporary, in Toronto. (And yup, that eponymous reference to the Erykah Badu song of the same name is both intentional and quite perfect.) I recently reviewed For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf for Keith, so Other Side seemed a nice match. When time came to book the tickets I asked, unwittingly, for a preview show (it fit my schedule); Keith then told me I should skip the review (previews are previews for a reason, people) and write a “think piece” about the show instead.

This was totally accidental and yet a perfect gift; I realized after seeing the production that I could do more with/for/alongside what Parris, Williams, and their creative team have done by skipping the inevitable judgement part and reviewing, instead, the process by which we judge theatre in salad-bowl Toronto in 2017. I hope along the way I captured a bit of the diversity-in-practice I saw on stage and caught from Parris’s and Williams’s program notes, as well as from my research.

 

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The gorgeous playbill cover for Other Side of the Game

But you tell me; I welcome your thoughts. Please click through to SFR‘s site here to read my article, and feel free to leave comments in that space or this one.

Certainly, I’ll be aiming to lift more work like this, in this way, up to our view in future “review” commissions. I’ve just seen the superb Asking For It by Ellie Moon at Crow’s Theatre, which could not be more timely in its verbatim excavation of how we talk about consent. It’s a teaching tool if ever there was one: rigorous in its exploration of sexual ambivalence and awkwardness, which makes it, frankly, ideal as a model for figuring out how to navigate the challenging waters of talking to and with young people about sexual safety, comfort, and pleasure. Look forward to a post on that very soon.

Kim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which also feels crazy timely to me, ya know?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kim