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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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:

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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

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.