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.

NHGFZZHNBNBCRP26HX3MOJ2UZA

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.

61680392_10156318911977966_2772880076558041088_o

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.

hd-mediaitemid55576-9053.png

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

Advertisements

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.

City Studio

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.)

ELC-2

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”!).

Trio-User-Graphic-with-Value-Props-v2

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?

fixedw_large_4x

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

Two Questions (and a whole lot more about decolonizing the classroom) – guest post by Anna Griffith

Friends: I’m honoured to share this guest post by Anna Griffith. Below, Anna reports on her on-the-ground experiences decolonizing her theatre history and performance studies classes at the University of the Fraser Valley.

I’ve learned so very much from this post – I hope you do too.

***

“I didn’t learn anything…I have way more questions than when I started.”

This piece of feedback was delivered in a final presentation about what students had learned during the capstone performance theory course I taught two years ago. I am grateful that the student was brave enough or frustrated enough to say it, as it helped me crystalize two important things. First, that my framing around my classes and my attempts to decolonize need to be clearer and better communicated to the students. Second, if I am to experiment with class structures, class content, and ways of learning that challenge dominant forms of teaching and learning, then I should get used to hearing this.

On Decolonization

I teach as a sessional instructor at the University of the Fraser Valley in the Theatre Department, a place that is forward thinking in its focus on teaching innovation, Indigenization, and commitment to decolonization. Within this environment, I have been experimenting with how I can decolonize not just the content of my classes, but the structure of them as well. Although some people frame this kind of practice as student-centered learning, experiential learning, or active learning (which it is), I prefer to focus on how instructors can use these forms of learning to challenge the continued colonization that occurs through education, and thereby promote decolonization.

As a white instructor from settler ancestry teaching on unceded Sto:lo territory, I have been trying to overtly mark the ways in which alternative pedagogies can move settlers closer to understanding Indigenous forms of teaching, learning, and knowing. I am interested in how embodied pedagogy can promote learning that emphasizes the importance of holistic knowledge as it is drawn from embodied experiences and focuses on bodies as relational, within social structures, and foundational to the ways we make meaning. In my classes, I try to move us towards a place where Indigenous pedagogies, methods, and knowledge can be engaged with (not exploited or used to add a flavour of diversity).

Embodied Pedagogy

My pedagogical approaches, through embodied pedagogy and applied critical theory, see me trying to create a third space between colonial educational systems that privilege certain forms of cognition and discourse-based learning, and Indigenous pedagogies and learning systems that might radically transform our societies if we embraced the aspects offered to us. I see this pedagogical change as part of the settler work required in order to create social and political change more broadly.

In their excellent article titled “Applying Indigenizing Principles of Decolonizing Methodologies in University Classrooms,” Dustin William Louie, Yvonne Poitras Pratt, Aubrey Jean Hanson, and Jacqueline Ottman write: “We contend that institutions of higher learning need to move away from the myopic lens used to view education and implement Indigenizing pedagogies in order to counteract the systemic monopolization of knowledge and communication” (17).

The authors share with us how they apply Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s 25 Indigenous projects as inspiration and guidance to reimagine their pedagogy and teaching practice (18), and suggest them as a good starting place for non-Indigenous scholars and teachers frustrated by their “lack of knowledge, training, or confidence to incorporate Indigenous knowledge or methods of education into their classrooms” (22). Although my work started before reading this article, I strongly agree with the authors and have seen fantastic growth in my students when applying a decolonial approach to the Theatre History course I teach at UFV.

What follows is a glimpse into how I offer this course and my attempts to decolonize both its structure and content. I then give you a sneak peek into a performance studies course I am offering next term that extends this wrestling match.

Theatre History: Antiquity to 1642 – Day 1: The Negotiation

Our first three-hour class together is about framing and negotiation. In my introduction, I disclose that I am incredibly excited by and focused on embodied, active learning, and arts-based methods of inquiry and that for the rest of the semester we will incorporate an element of this into each class. I also reveal that I am working to decolonize my classes in order to challenge power structures and systems of education that often don’t include the learner’s voice.

And so begins the negotiation. I hand out a syllabus I created that has already attempted to integrate aspects of the western canon with theatrical forms from non-western perspectives. I then ask students to look for holes in my representation, to consider what they are interested in learning about, and to explore what they think they should know by the time they leave our class. We do this through small group activities culminating in a large group discussion, and I find that even if we don’t change the syllabus much, it offers students more buy-in and a structured way for their perspectives to be integrated.

Again working in small groups and then as a larger group, we generate the overarching questions that will guide us through the term. We negotiate the weight of assignments and co-create the first rubrics (an activity we repeat for each assignment). We brainstorm what they expect in a teacher, and what they expect from themselves and their peers as students, and together we come up with an agreement on how we will conduct the class.

All of this takes time, and I generally budget 30 minutes for each part of the negotiation (content, overarching questions, and class expectations), except the rubric creation which takes longer (I plan on one hour for this). We have three hours together each class, and the first day really sets up the kind of engagement and participation I expect, which is a lot. 

I ask the students for their voices and their perspectives on how to create a fair and interesting course, and although there is sometimes resistance, for the most part students are quite engaged in the process. It helps when we discuss the skills they are practicing through this experience: metacognitive thinking, synthesis and organization of ideas, democracy. Beyond that, I frame this work as the central preoccupation of a theatre historian: someone who makes decisions about what information is important (what should we study?) and how to analyze it (what issues or big themes are we going to pursue? What assignments get the most weight?). At the end of the tussle, this is what my class ended up studying this term:

Page_00001

Page_00002

Our negotiated weekly schedule outlining the focus of each week, the region or theatrical form studied, a play and any secondary source articles for each week, and assignment due dates. Theatrical forms covered: Greek Tragedy, Mesoamerican Performance, West African Griot Performance, Roman Comedy, Indian Sanskrit Drama, Japanese Noh Theatre, Chinese Yuan  Drama, Commedia dell’Arte of Italy, Elizabethan Theatre of England

The culminating work of the class is a final creative project, which asks students to synthesize information from class and express it through an artistic medium accompanied by a written text, and presented to the class.

We start this process by creating the rubric together. In small groups, students design individual rubrics, based on the criteria they think should be assessed and what excellence in each area looks like. We then start the long process of blending them. Our discussions include defining what each criterion means, what might be excellent as opposed to very good or average work, and debating whether or not the wording reflects academic requirements while still allowing personal creative freedom.

Here is how our co-created rubric turned out:

Page_00001

Page_00002

The final creative projects students presented were insightful, contained deep synthesis and understanding of theatrical form and political/social context, were highly entertaining, and demonstrated to me how hard students will work when they are motivated, engaged, and inspired.

Our projects this year included: masks, songs, a storyboard, a set of film notes, a Commedia cake, a comic strip, a musical score, and a mini-series trailer, to name just a few examples.

Clockwise from top: “The Tempest” comic strip created by Talia Tvergyak; contemporary Pantalone mask riffing on the current global political climate created by Coco Bedard; Anatole Smith and Keegan Zaporozan performing, with masks, costumes, and lighting design created by Linnea Balt; Commedia dell’Arte Cake created by Aimee Payeur and Ali Slack.

While one Theatre History class isn’t a fix for the ongoing acts of colonization that happen daily within western university practices, it does offer the students a louder voice in their learning, positions me as a facilitator rather than an expert, and changes power dynamics for a brief moment. It is tough and messy stuff, and I will continue to build on this experiment in the performance studies course I am teaching next term, which I’ve called Performing Bodies/Performing Identities.

Continuing the Experiment in Performing Bodies/Performing Identities

I am still fleshing out my draft syllabus, but here is where I’m at so far.

I have three main categories that frame the course: citational performances (things like drag, cosplay, or religious fashion), disciplinary tactics (bodybuilding and CrossFit for example), and modifications (think of tattoos, piercings, or cyberware). Since there are so many amazing people writing about fantastic things related to how we perform our bodies, I have compiled a smorgasbord of articles and artists we could engage with.

The Day One Negotiation Class will have students select what they are interested in learning about, or find what they are interested in studying within the course theme and pitch it to me. My hope is that the content will reflect the students in the room and their interests.

In this first class they will also set up their blogs (the main place that will house their assignments) and we will discuss labour.

Re-Thinking Assessment

Inspired by Asao Inoue’s work in Antiracist Writing Assessment Ecologies: Teaching and Assessing Writing for a Socially Just Future, I am trying to find ways to measure the labour of the class. A big part of Inoue’s argument is that our assessment of writing often privileges students who write like we do (favouring the clear, academically rigorous writing of our discipline, and the students who already know those codes), and punishes students who fail to do this. He argues that there are implicit racial (and class) biases in what is judged as acceptable academic writing that are further complicated by issues of access.

Asao’s suggestion is that if grades are based on the labour and effort put into achieving high levels of academic writing, then the playing field becomes more even and doesn’t automatically privilege certain students with existing expertise. I am trying to integrate Inoue’s work in two main ways (aside from majorly checking my assumptions in how I assess).

First, I have created a weekly blogging assignment where students will engage with the text or artist’s work. I am drafting a rubric (to be negotiated) focused on depth of understanding, critical engagement, and critical analysis, but then will offer students a choice about what they do with their blogs each week (answering questions, narrative inquiry, creative response, or synthesizing and responding to other people’s ideas). These weekly marks are based on the labour of having done the response in a critical way and on time, but the expression of that knowledge can be chosen by the student.

The second way I am engaging with Asao’s ideas is through a process-based research paper. Students will submit the first draft, get feedback (possibly peer-reviewed), revise, submit a second draft for feedback, revise, and then submit for a final time. I am trying to emphasize that writing, learning, and creating take time, effort, practice, and revision.

Their creative final project will be a praxis-based performance art or public art piece that engages with the class materials and discussion in some way and allows theoretical knowledge to be translated into arts-based practice with an emphasis on personal voice. My ways of practicing decolonization through revisions in structure and changes to content are now being pushed farther to consider how and what I assess. I oscillate between feeling exhilarated and terrified by this.

Two Questions

I am a sessional instructor acutely aware of the precariousness of what that is. Working as I do requires a lot of labour up front (finding articles, researching artists, planning activities and exercises), and it feels very risky at times since my fate seems determined by course evaluations written by students. It is a tenuous place to be.

However, the benefit is that I get to approach each semester as if it is the last time I will teach this course.

I always ask myself: if this is the last time I’m here, what is the most innovative, exciting way for my students and I to engage with the material?

And now I ask myself a second question: if I measure every part of this class against my claim of decolonization, am I really doing it?

***

Anna Griffith is a sessional instructor in the Theater Department at the University of the Fraser Valley in BC. She earned her Ph.D. from York University in Theatre and Performance Studies, and her current work focuses on embodied pedagogy, decolonization, and Indigenization. She lives in Vancouver, BC, with her husband and their two small children. 

Theatre IS democracy. Pass it on.

Tomorrow is mid-term election day in the U.S.; my best wishes to all of my American readers, colleagues, and friends.

It’s an understatement to say that this is an important election. It is an election that may well determine whether the U.S. returns to some semblance of its pre-2016 self, for all its flaws and troubles, or pushes closer to the brink of genuine fascism.

This frightens me, as I know it frightens many of you. Depending on where you teach, it may also frighten your students. Or, it may be they are tuned out, don’t care too much.

Maybe they are old enough to vote and are planning to vote. Maybe they are old enough to vote but are also disenfranchised for one reason or another. Maybe they are old enough to vote but won’t be voting, sick like so many of us of the disgusting and horrifically xenophobic rhetoric that passes for political discourse in so many corners of the world these days. Maybe they aren’t old enough to vote yet, but care deeply anyway.

LWVDC-GOTV

Whoever your students are, you might be thinking today (whether you’re American or not) about how to talk to your students about their rights and responsibilities as citizens in a democracy. (If you don’t live in a democracy, you may be thinking about these things even more urgently.)

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, too.

I’ve been working slowly over the past year on a new research project about the place of theatre and performance education and training in the contemporary university. (This is a collaborative project – a big hello to Kat, Diana, Sylvan, Rebecca, Barry, and many more of you out there.) At the core of this project is one essential belief: that learning about, and learning to make, theatre and performance is akin to learning about, and learning to make, a healthy, supportive, socially progressive democracy. For this reason, theatre and performance studies are not just “niche”, nor are they “just” creative arts. They are about learning the art of genuine citizenship – and should be recognized, funded, respected, and promoted that way by university leaders.

EpidaurusTheaterByNight

The Theatre of Epidaurus at sunset. The Greeks knew it.

Today feels like a good day to reflect on the firm, urgent bond between theatre-making and democracy-building. What is theatre, after all, except a creative endeavour in which a group of human beings research, practice, struggle over, and negotiate the challenge of inhabiting the attitudes, beliefs, prejudices, wisdoms – as well as the geographical and socioeconomic and cultural and historical contexts – of a group of other human beings? At its most basic, acting is the art of the proverbial walk-a-mile-in-another’s-shoes gesture, the central act of empathy that binds us to our fellow citizens (and to those among us who are not so privileged as to be our fellow citizens yet – the hardest stretch of all).

Actors say repeatedly and vehemently that it is not possible to play a character in whose experience you do not, on some level, have faith; you may be far, far from that character’s context or politics or even sense of human decency, but without some basic understanding of who that character is, where their actions come from, and how you as a human being are linked to them as a human being, no creativity can come.

The portrayal of another without even a smidge of shared understanding would result in stereotype, and nothing more.

(Brecht devotees, I am among you. But performing Brechtian distance is not the same thing as acting without empathy or emotional investment. One of my favourite clips to show students when I talk about this kind of thing is from a French documentary made about a decade ago for ARTE, about the acclaimed British touring company Cheek By Jowl. In the clip, Tom Hiddleston talks about what it feels like to play two diametrically opposed characters in the same production of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline. His thoughts are compelling and resonant, and represent how closely Stanislavskian or “system”-style acting is to Brechtian or “alienated” acting, at its core. [Click through to the middle to find Tom.])

But theatre is about more than the empathetic bonds actors build with characters and with one another, of course. It is also about the fundamental challenge of collaborative world-building. You start with a script, or maybe just an idea. You play. You devise scenarios from held objects. You think about design, about scene structure, about set architecture. You select patterns to draw out – then you argue about whether or not these are the right ones. The contours of your world emerge from your shared graft, energy, arguments – creativity.

12-minute-madness-2

I have shamelessly snatched this evocative image of 12 Minute Madness from alt.theatre’s website; please click through to read my colleague Kelsey Blair’s terrific review of this production. Thanks and apologies to alt!

It’s hard to be sure – lots of feelings circulate in the rehearsal hall and sometimes they are ugly. But you have a shared project to make – a world to build together. The world must go on! So you return the next day, patch it up a bit, move on together, and the suture strengthens. You keep building.

This is for me the heart of theatre’s link to democracy. To make a world is hard. To cross the barriers of difference with humility is hard. To fight over something fundamental without destroying a relationship is hard. To fight over something fundamental, almost destroy a relationship, and then come back in the morning to try again, together, is hard.

So far so true, you might be thinking. But what about studying theatre, in academic (not practical or conservatory) programs like the one on which I teach? Like all critical liberal arts, academic theatre studies requires teachers and students together to enter into a shared world built by others, for others, and then undertake the challenge of really, carefully thinking through what is at stake in that world: what social claims are on the table, for whose benefit they have been tabled, and at what potential costs.

This is the work I’ve been doing every week with the students in my new experiential learning class, “Toronto: Culture and Performance”. We read (via a team of student leaders on each production, who build a wiki-page of intel for us in advance) about the place, the artists, the history and the ideas behind a production; then we see that production together, ask questions afterward of the artists and other makers, and finally return to the classroom for a debrief, held alongside a discussion of relevant readings. We investigate a world – with empathy for the makers and yet also with questions about their choices, as well as about the social, economic, and demographic constraints that have shaped their work. We ask each other what the work is meant to do for a community (Toronto and its many constituencies), and what the work seems to want to say to us.

We respect the work but push hard back on it. Which is to say: we do the work of citizens in a democracy.

I know not all classes can, or should, look like this one. (It’s a lot of work to run and expensive, too.) And yes, I also know that not all theatre practice looks like the idyl I describe above. Lots of artists are total jackasses. Lots of us prefer to nullify rather than negotiate difference in rehearsal. Lots of us are egomaniacs and practically dictators when we hold the director’s baton. (So: pretty much like your average democracy, then!)

But that’s all the more reason for us to remember, today, what theatre – as a practice, a study, an art form, and a form of worlding – at its best teaches us, and what we as teachers consequently need to share with our students. Theatre shows us how to act like proper citizens, regardless of the day: how to care for one another, how to care for our world as if we are all invested in it, and how to contour that world as if it is for all of us to experience, appreciate, negotiate, and enjoy.

This is the message I want to send my students, tomorrow and everyday, about what learning in our shared classroom means. About what I as a teacher believe in.

I hope you’ll pass it on!

Kim