What is experiential learning? Part two: snapshots from experiencing differently

Two posts ago, I spent some time thinking about the paradox of “Experiential Learning” (capital E, capital L!) as a commodity in the neoliberal university, and I proposed an alternative way of thinking about the experiential in relationship to teaching and learning. In this post, I put that thinking into practice with a few snapshots of my recent trip to the CATR (Canadian Association for Theatre Research) annual conference at the University of British Columbia.

First, though, a brief digression in service of some theory.

In that earlier post, I talk in particular about the difference between “experience” as a noun (a thing to buy, to have, to collect, to seek out), and “experience” as a verb – a “learning by doing”. In (re)imagining learning as “experiencing”, I am taking a cue from the 20th century director and acting teacher Konstantin Stanislavsky, for whom the practice of experiencing was central to the development of the technique (sometimes called emotional realism) associated with his legacy. As Sharon Carnicke argues in her landmark book Stanislavsky in Focus (2nd edition, 2008, esp pp 129-47), “experiencing” is a way that an actor prepares and trains (by living and observing life outside the theatre in thick detail); it is also essential to that actor’s work on stage, as they recreate their thick observations in the making of a role and experience them all over again. This is what is sometimes called “living the part”.

As Carnicke explains, though, the Russian term for experiencing (perezhivanie) is more complex than the latter phrase can capture, and for Stanislavsky it connoted much more than just mimetic realism. Stanislavsky imagines actors to be co-creators – along with playwrights and directors – in shaping character, and experiencing is what underpins their creative labour. Experiencing also roots his argument (in “Perspective of the actor and the role”, in An Actor’s Work, trans. Benedetti) that actors operate inside a double optic on stage, where they live the moment-to-moment of their characters, but also remain aware in each of those moments of a character’s larger arc, context, and the story’s eventual end.

“Experiencing” for Stanislavsky, then, is a doing that includes inhabiting another’s story while recognizing and reckoning with that other story’s context and circumstances – which will be different from one’s own. At the same time one hold’s one’s own lived experiences in the world up to careful scrutiny in order to use them as a creative tool in the service of building a role. Finally, one experiences all of these things – the life, the character, and the context – at the same time on stage, and negotiates amongst them.

What I love about Stanislavsky’s model of experiencing is its very doubled quality: that to have an experience is not to hold it but to question it, to see it from the perspective of the immediate moment but also through the crucial wider lens of context, implications – and yes, potential outcomes. To experience is to question the thing itself; to experience is to encounter difference; and to experience is to create in collaboration with others.

Now, with this framework in mind, those promised snapshots.

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Performing Towards Youth at Streetcar Crowsnest in Toronto.

It’s day one.

I’m jet lagged and so I get up early and follow my colleague Laura down to the very first session, which is co-facilitated by Kathleen Gallagher of the University of Toronto’s OISE institute, and playwright Andrew Kushnir. Kathleen and Andrew talk a bit about their recent, amazing collaboration, Towards Youth, and then lead us in a Verbatim theatre workshop.

Andrew reads a series of value statements, and the rest of us place ourselves physically on an imaginary line in order to represent our feelings about those statements. Each time, someone inevitably ends up in the outlier position, and it’s immediately, viscerally clear to us all whether we are “in” or “out” of line. Andrew invites our discussion; outliers laugh and talk about how they aren’t really THAT outlier-ish. We laugh, too, sharing their discomfort and potential uncertainty.

Near the end of this part of the workshop, Andrew reads a statement that comes from the director Robert LePage; the comments he reads were made in the wake of a recent scandal involving the cultural appropriation of lived Black experience. I wasn’t aware of the statement’s origins; some others were, some not.

I found myself the outlier this time. I found myself agreeing with the spirit of the statement, divorced of its context. I felt strong in my brain that my position was a good one. But I felt queasy in my body on the edge of the pack.

Afterward, I thought hard about whether or not I would have positioned myself the same way had I known the statement’s origins. I thought carefully about the potential implications of that statement in a variety of contexts. I felt in my body the ugliness of being on the margin, but also the humility of seeing from two perspectives at once, and of being unsure of whether or not the choice I’d made was a good one for everyone. During our debrief, another member of the workshop wondered how our use of the statement might have changed if Lepage himself, as the author of those words, had been in the room and had been given the opportunity to contextualize them, reconsider them, debate them. We all wondered with him.

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Petra Kuppers demonstrates assisted floating during her Salamander workshop at UBC, June 2019.

Later that day I sit with hundreds of colleagues in a large auditorium to hear Petra Kuppers, our invited keynote speaker. Petra is talking about water-based workshops she holds around the world in order to reframe our experiences of our bodies and their interactions in relationship to ability. She begins by sharing a video reel of images from one of these workshops, and she asks us all to partner up and then to audio-describe the images we see. This proves incredibly challenging. My partner and I remark on how hard it is to find good, accurate words to convey the images on screen before they disappear. Experiencing the visual through the linguistic is discombobulating for me; it’s also conducive to improv poetry.

That afternoon I get to participate in Petra’s Salamander workshop myself. I arrive at the UBC aquatic centre and move quickly through the gender-neutral change room, arriving at a glorious, open, air-and-light-filled space containing no fewer than three pools (and many more different water-based places within them). We get in, Petra sets our stage, and soon we are holding one another at head and lower back to enable effortless floating.

I feel the pain in my arms as I try to hold my partner effectively. I hear the quiet around us in contrast to the sounds of children’s play, music, and voices elsewhere, echoing through the space. I float myself and feel the pure joy of looking into the ceiling, nothing else to do, but then I am suddenly conscious of my body’s weight and its potential burden and return to myself, differently.

Later, we move to a warmer pool and make sounds together, creating a water-based orchestra. I dive under several times and open my eyes to feel the sting of the chlorine and witness the wavy shapes of my colleagues’ and students’ bodies rendered amphibious. At dinner, I make gentle fun of the things we did, but in truth this is probably the most memorable and enjoyable experience I have ever had at an academic conference, where the norm is sitting quietly, stiffly, uncomfortably, struggling to listen attentively.

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A glam promo shot from Kim Senklip Harvey’s Kamloopa.

The next morning we gather in the same big auditorium to listen to three outstanding  indigenous women artists talk about re-matriating theatre on Turtle Island. As Lindsay Lachance, Quelemia Sparrow, and Kim Senklip Harvey talk about their practice, they share ways of working that don’t resemble the kinds of teaching and learning with which many of us settlers – directors, actors, or none – may be familiar.

They talk about “presencing” – sharing one another’s community stories to ground everyone in a room (in an Indigenous-led room). They talk about blood memory as a dramaturgical tool. They talk about birch bark biting as a means of embodying story, and as a practice of collaboration. They talk about making offerings to one another, gifting moments to one another, during rehearsal and in performance in order to keep everyone safe, strong, and well. They talk about making a shared Indigenous-led space, and then creating in that space using life ways and ways of art and labour connected to ancestors, and to generations of good practice. And they talk about indigenous women as theorists.

I witness this conversation on the stage, much of which is not just directed at us but connected to us as a dialogue – even though talking to settlers has got to be exhausting, endless labour for these women. I witness with gratitude as I watch and listen to them make theory together, laughing but also in moments hurting together. And I think about them as theorists not just of theatre and performance, but of pedagogy.

***

The Activist Classroom is going to take a break for the rest of the summer. Go to the beach already, people!

I’ll be back on 3 September, with a few surprises in tow.

Stay tuned, and thanks as always for reading!

Kim

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Decolonizing the classroom, end of term edition (Pt 2)

In my last post, I wrote about my History of Performance Theory gang, the amazing term we had together, and the incredible achievement they walked away with: a bunch of As. I talked in particular about how low-stakes, grade-free tasks, and fulsome engagement and participation, were key to their success – not just in “earning” A-level grades, but in demonstrating A-level learning and growth.

A big part of their capacity to learn and grow in this way can be attributed to the amazing classroom space we moved into at mid-term – something I first wrote about here.

I clocked immediately, upon seeing that new classroom space in February and getting incredibly excited about its potential, that in it we would be able to work in fresh ways as a team, and use technology much more to our benefit than we had in our old, quite unloved, traditional quasi-seminar/quasi-lecture space.

Our old room, our new room. A huge difference.

What I had not realized right away was that this new space would also allow the students to get to know one another better, trust one another more, and collaborate more effectively together. This new, active-learning-oriented space was not just able to decenter me as the ‘expert’ in the room, and to re-orient our learning around student engagement and response; it actually had the capacity to shape classroom community in new ways, and in ways that opened students’ eyes to the power of each other’s knowledge and ability in ways traditional classroom environments simply do not do.

How did I learn this thing about my students, this thing that should perhaps be obvious?

I asked them.

Participation in this class was keyed not just to in-class or online engagement; it was also dependent upon students stepping up to really think critically about their own strengths and weaknesses as learners in our class, in two short participation-reflection papers (one at mid-term and one at the end of the year). When I realized late in the term that the students were genuinely exhausted (so far so normal), and thus probably would not give their final participation reflections enough time and effort to properly reflect on their participation in our class, I had a radical idea. I scrapped my plan to review and sum up our course readings in our last session together, and decided, instead, that we’d spend that session working together to reflect on our participation.

To shape that final lesson, I created four prompts for students to write around. These were:

  1. Think about your participation in class since reading week. What went really well? What went as well, or perhaps even better, than in the first half of the term?
  2. Now, think about what didn’t go so well. Where did you want to improve, but it didn’t quite work out as planned? What slipped, though it was going well before?
  3. Now, think about your experience as a learner. What’s your most significant take-away from our class? What piece of knowledge, or what experience, do you think will stay with you?
  4. One last question – for Kim’s benefit! Did our new WALS space affect how you engaged in our class? If so, how exactly? If not, what is still missing?

I gave students five minutes per prompt to write about the first two prompts, then two minutes for the third – plus a chunk of time to pair and share with the other students at their pods/tables – and finally five minutes for the last.

In response to the last prompt, in particular, the students told me things about their experience in their learning ‘pods’ that I could not have understood from outside those micro-environments.

They commented on how the pods’ orientation (everyone around a shared table – no choice but to sit with and look at others!) generated an atmosphere that was not just group-work oriented, but ‘relaxed’ – it helped lower the stakes, so learning could feel more comfortable, and it created an environment where there was no expectation that they would simply hear and write down knowledge spoken from a front-central area. One student noted – contrary to my expectations! – that because students were always sat at the same pods, they not only became closer with one another, but could also extend their discussions over time, picking up on earlier comments or ideas and moving them forward, even when I did not explicitly invite them to do this.

Students also wrote about how a room in which they were expected to sit together, facing each other – and were not forced, as we had been in our old room, to try to engineer seminar tables out of furniture that we typically (despite the hopeful photo above) found to be forward-facing – made the group learning components of our class feel more ‘organic’ and even ‘easy’. Note-taking gave way to complex group discussion; learning toggled between the shared white boards, where students visualized one another’s ideas, and the chat around their tables, making a learning impression deeper than notes alone might be able to create.

They talked, too, about the pleasures of the tech – the electronic white boards at each pod were a huge hit (making question-exploration and note-taking so much more fun), and the projectors and internet connectivity at each were celebrated for the roles they played in the students’ incredible final presentations, in particular. A couple of students suggested that, in my next class in the space, we spend a lesson or two early in the term just orienting ourselves, simply playing around with the technology, in order to discover its capabilities and what they might do for us as we work through the term. I love this idea!

One student, Katie Flannery, really captured the spirit of the group’s replies to prompt #4; I’ve asked for her permission to reproduce her comments here:

The WALS (Wide or Wonderful Amiable Learning Space):

My very random decoding of this acronym sums up how I feel about this room. I loved the space it gave us. We no longer had to take 15 minutes to move around furniture. The room was ready for us to engage with it right when we got there which is wonderful. “Amiable” because I felt comfortable right away. The placement of the tables and where you (Dr.Solga) are able to stand and teach/interact is ideal. It allowed an easy-flowing discussion as you can see every face in the class. “Learning” because I do believe the interactive technology advanced my learning. I liked how we could engage with the whiteboards separately in our own groups while simultaneously displaying it for the entire class. It made the transition from little groups to the whole group seamless. Another class I have had in one of these rooms also got us to do lots of movement activities. We would kind of rotate through whiteboards. A group would write one response down and have to then contribute next time to the following groups white board. This kind of activity allowed groups to really rely on each other. These rooms allow all the movement!

Katie celebrates another terrific white-board achievement.

So this is my take-away from the students’ take-aways from our wonderful, amiable learning space: the room gives students permission to recognize, respect, and learn from each other in ways that are not hierarchical and that authorize multiple voices and perspectives at once as critical questions come under our scrutiny.

When students sit in rows facing forward, or even in a traditional seminar-table setting, there’s always a ‘main’ voice – usually the teacher’s – and there are usually, too, the usual suspects: the clever kids who always seem to have the ‘right’ answer. In those spatial circumstances, it’s so easy for ‘regular’ students to distrust their own voices, or resent those of their louder peers. But when a learning space is comprised of multiple tables, and the prof is forced to become a roving participant and regular listener, the opposite obtains. Students learn more, full stop, get more interested, and do better.

A number of students, in response to my third prompt, commented on the meta-pedagogical qualities of our class; they talked about ‘learning how to learn,’ discovering what was possible in a classroom, and making connections between the work we were reading and the world around them in ways they had not ever done before. I’m convinced that, because the WALS space radically re-orients their (and my!) usual expectations of what a classroom should look like, it also encourages them to think about their physical and emotional classroom experience much more, and much more critically, than normal. This can only be a good thing.

Stay tuned for more WALS adventures as I have them!

Kim

 

 

Decolonizing the classroom: end of term edition (Pt 1)

(Or: What if they all get As?)

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Back in January, I wrote about my particular winter term in-class challenge: to begin the process of transforming my History of Performance Theory undergraduate class into something less knee-jerk colonial, and more respectful and supportive of students’ diverse needs. As I noted then, this process necessarily had to be a process; despite my best intentions, the in-the-way-getting of life had meant I’d not spent anywhere near enough time in the fall term planning course renovations. Thus, we’d make a beginning, and see how it goes.

It’s now April, finally the trees are budding, and all over campus the billboards are telling me it’s end of term.

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And me? I’m already missing my performance theory students – what an incredible, talented, thoughtful bunch. And I’m questioning whether or not we’d have had half as much fun, or learned half as much about the politics of theatrical representation, if I’d managed to spend all fall term fussing over the syllabus.

These 15 humans didn’t just make the term fun, compelling, surprising, a learning experience for one another and for me; they also all earned As. Yup, that’s right.

They. All. Got. As.

I realized this last Tuesday, when I hit the “course grade” button in our online learning system, and saw that the lowest mark in the class was 82%. The highest mark was 97%.

I had a brief minute of panic. I imagined my Undergraduate Chair rolling his eyes at the average. I heard my Dean’s voice reminding faculty to “always use the whole range” of marks available to us in the 0-100% system.

And then I thought about the work that the students and I had accomplished together, and about their powerful feedback on the experience of the class (one of the subjects of my next post – watch this space).

And I thought,

Why, exactly, shouldn’t they all get As?

I have a number of thoughts about this. I’ll get to them in a minute. But first, let’s back up a few weeks.

Back in my January post, I listed four things that I had decided I wanted the class to do as I/we attempted to craft a decolonized version of the “History of Performance Theory”:

  1. Empower the students;
  2. Not hierarchize the readings (White/Other);
  3. Not follow a normative temporal chronology;
  4. Be above all about learning to read theory, and to use it in fun and relevant ways.

I then wrote about three ways I’d developed for us to attempt to do these things. The class selected readings together, including a significant number from our fairly standard textbook, and opted for a pretty diverse range of voices; we worked through three central research questions, framed around the primary who or what is allowed to be represented, and why?; and I expanded my “Explain/Apply/Extend” framework from previous years to organize each week’s lessons and to prioritize, in the “apply” portion of weekly events, student responses to the theory, and in particular creative responses.

I’m very pleased to report that the momentum of the early weeks, which fuelled my optimism in that January post, held strongly throughout the term – even in those weeks when midterms were nigh and assignments were due and I had the stomach flu.

In fact, possibly my favourite class of the term coincided with the latter, though I admit it’s possible I was hallucinating slightly from dehydration at that point. We were set to talk about Brandi Wilkins Catanese’s introduction to her phenomenal The Problem of the Color(blind), a book about race and representation in the mythical land that styles itself as “post-race America”. Lots of students hadn’t read the full chapter, because March/assignments/fatigue/long and challenging stuff. So we read chunks together and peer-taught key ideas to each other, using the tools our fabulous new active-learning classroom put at our disposal. (More about the role that space played in the term, for me and the students, in my next post as well.)

By the end of that class, as we looked through some of the videos students had linked to online in response to the weekly, low-stakes “apply” task, we shared comments about race, history, and representation with a nuance I very rarely hear from undergraduates.

(Two of the “applies” students posted in response to Catanese’s work. Note that the first is a satire remarking on Barack Obama’s handling of the trope of black rage, while the second is a montage of historical images of blackface from the end of Spike Lee’s incredible 2000 film Bamboozled. The latter needs some context for naive viewers, although as an example of Brechtian montage it is unparalleled.)

That week on Catanese is representative of our term together for a number of reasons.

It was late March; it was a cold day; students were buried in assignments; many of them hadn’t done the reading, or done that much of it.

Yet fully half of them had read enough of the chapter to be able to apply at least one issue raised by it to a strong example online.

And all of them – every single one of them – showed up to class.

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HOLY COW!!!

By that point, we’d become a committed class community, and the students (who were already working toward their final group performances at this point) felt strong obligations to one another. Many students also reported in their final participation reflections that finding ways to make *some* time for the readings ahead of class had become a priority for them, because the weekly apply tasks held them to account, and dangled the important carrot of “free” marks. (More on this in a moment.)

Further, once a student had an “apply” up on the website, they clearly felt a certain ownership over the reading and/or a commitment to the emerging discussion about it, making coming to class and participating in the discussion actively that much more important. In only one instance did a student miss class on a day when they had also written an apply post for that day’s reading.

Which brings me, finally, back to the problem of all the As.

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The arse-kicking Siobhan McSweeney in Derry Girls. Another “bad teacher” who is by no means actually a bad teacher.

There are a number of reasons that this batch of students all received A-level grades. (And I should stress here that I have never had this happen before, in nearly 20 years of teaching. I always aim to use, if not the whole range of grades, then at least a good, broad range. I am an excellent subject of power.)

First of all, I’m a fairly generous marker. This is because I’m getting older, and see potential more than I see error. (I’m guessing here, but I think this is a common trajectory. My grad student assistants tend on average to mark harder than me, for example, and I know I marked hard as a TA. Over time you loosen up, and feel more empathy for the struggling ones. For another educated guess about this trajectory, click here.)

Secondly, this class featured a good range of assignments that tried as much as possible to set students up for success. For example, “Explain,” “Apply,” and “Extend” were each their own essay task for proper marks, as well as a framework I used consistently each week to organize lessons, so students had ample time to work out what good iterations of the task could look like.

The final group performance project was worth a lot, but the rubric I used to grade it we developed together in class, agreeing on which aspects of the work we wanted to emphasize (thought work, connections between play text and chosen theoretical model, creative ingenuity), and which we wanted to downplay (professional polish, exceptional acting, things less likely to emerge from a non-studio scene study). The students had a full month to work in groups on their projects; they self-selected into those groups based on their chosen play texts, and they benefited from an early workshop week that was designed to get them going at a time when ideas weren’t yet fixed and plans were still emergent.

Ultimately, the students excelled in their tripartite essays, and knocked it out of the park with their performances – which featured one of the genuinely best scene studies I have ever seen in the classroom, including those I’ve witnessed in studio-based practicum classes.

Thirdly – and I think this is the kicker – the low-stakes, online, weekly “apply” tasks were a not-complicated way for students to earn 100% on a task worth 10% of the term’s work. All students needed to do was read the week’s work in advance of our Thursday class, post a link to a video or article or other piece of robust interweb chatter that might constitute an application of the theory in question, and include a short paragraph about why they made their particular choice.

By the end of the term, 11 students had completed all five posts; two had completed four of five. (Two students, with health challenges, had accommodation for the task.) Most of them didn’t just post a video and write a short para, either; several crafted detailed, essay-like responses to their applications, which I then permitted them to hone and expand for the formal “apply” essay task. Students’ investment in the readings was visible in their thoughtful engagement with the theory-in-application online, and in the willingness many showed to take a stab, even if they might be wrong.

(The point of this task, as I reinforced at mid-term when I made some changes to the format to coax more participation, was just to give it a fair try; total failure was unlikely, but more importantly total failure could not preclude the reward for giving it a shot. What’s to lose?)

In the past, when I’ve used low-stakes prompts-for-points tools, I’ve folded the online cookie into the grade for participation: do so many online posts, earn 100% for participation, so long as you don’t miss more than three classes without accommodation for medical or compassionate reasons. This time around, the apply responses online constituted a separate grade point – but students still had the capacity to do really well in participation alongside, especially because, in our student-centred space-and-learning format, participation is the course’s bread and butter, and this crew really stepped up. (Their thoughtful and honest participation reflection papers were also key to many doing well on this separate grade point.)

As I pondered my sea of As Tuesday last, I thought hard about my decision to separate “online applies” from “participation”, giving each their own shot at perfection. Had it been a mistake to hand that much of the term’s grade over to, essentially, effort? Did I need to fold these markers of success back together, in order to prevent another tsunami of high-fives next year?

I thought maybe yes. Probably yes.

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Of course, Homer is rarely correct.

And then I remembered that I’m in the middle of the decolonization process with this class. How are the grading rubrics we use now a marker of the colonial scaffolds organizing our classroom practices? How do we shift these, decolonize our grading in a holistic way?

Of course, there are plenty of examples of pass/fail classes designed to level the field and remove grades entirely from the picture, though research continues to accumulate on the risks and benefits of this strategy. (Two of the major benefits emergent from this research are a) a focus on transparency alongside rigour in the classroom; b) a fresh or renewed focus by faculty on thinking carefully about criteria, assessment practices, and feedback – something we do not do nearly enough, in my experience. Read more here, and here.)

But most of us work inside a fairly rigid, large-ship university structure; we could try to drive systemic change around grading, but that sounds like a lot of work to me, and work that will take a lot of time and many hands.

In the meantime, perhaps we could learn from that strong second benefit of the pass/fail system: clear-eyed, focused, group and individual reflection on assessment practices, and on how the marks we give map onto student learning, instead of just student achievement.

When I think carefully about my students in HPT this past term, I remember that what they marked, time and again – with their in-class practice, their online practice, and their reflection practice (in the papers they produced for their participation grades) – was fulsome, strong, broad engagement. Across the board.

They told me on our last day together that they had learned “how to learn”; that they had found themselves surprised and excited to apply old, seemingly stuffy theories to contemporary, real-world situations and examples; that they had discovered the power of learning in teams, and of committing to each other as a team of learners; and that they had discovered the power that space (in our case, literal classroom space) holds to shape interaction and engagement among students and teachers on a learning journey.

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I know the donuts I brought as a last-class treat were not the only reason the gang turned up to reflect on our term together. I know because they voted 14-1 in favour of holding class when I gave them the option to cancel. Also, #donutmonster #hamont

They honoured me with these words, truly they did. And they honoured me over and over again with their excellent in-term work, for real, proper marks.

So why should they not all get As, then?

Did they not do – did we not do, as a team – exactly what undergraduates are supposed to do in a third-year class: advance their learning practice with concrete take-aways for the future? Build strong collaborative skills? Investigate, and invest in, some truly complex theoretical ideas?

Maybe it seems intimidating, to some, to think that all the students could hit the top achievement marker. Maybe it seems dishonest, to others.

To me, though, it seems like the exact right way to end a really remarkable term.

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See you next week! (…For more, on what space has to do with participation),

Kim

OMG SPACE. Proper classroom space!

*Note: scroll to the bottom of this post for a 30-page preview of my new book, Theory for Theatre Studies: Space!

Every winter term, the faculty teaching at my university get a message from the people at WALS, the office in charge of Western’s Active Learning Spaces. The message invites us to apply to hold our next year’s class(es) in one of the several WALS rooms on campus.

Every winter term, I ignore this message. There’s a simple reason: I assume these rooms are Not Meant For Me. They are big; they hold a good number of students. My classes are small; they are arts-based and niche. Of course, I reason, working in one of these rooms would be absolutely ideal for the way I teach; but no way, I caution myself, would WALS give me one of these rooms. Why allocate precious classroom space that could hold 60 to a class with only 18 students in it? No chance, I tell myself. DELETE.

This winter term, though, I did something differently. I stopped myself from indulging in the defeatist, scarcity-driven reasoning in the paragraph above. I asked myself: what actually governs who gets WALS spaces? Perhaps I should find out?

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Students in a third-year class, Environmental Change, work in a WALS space at Western in 2014. Photo courtesy of the WALS Flickr gallery.

I emailed the person behind the message, a terrific, energetic, pedagogy-forward graduate student called Cortney. She told me – and reader, my jaw did drop – that the WALS rooms are assigned FIRST COME, FIRST SERVED. For reals. She then offered to take me on a tour of the brand-new WALS space in my newly renovated building, Western’s historic University College.

Cortney and I met up a couple of weeks later. I was astonished by the capacity of the room she showed me! It features seven pods, which is WALS short-hand for seven tables equipped with 6-8 chairs, their own projector, a white board that doubles as a screen AND an e-board, plus extra mobile white boards for playing around. There are connection hubs on the tables for all manner of devices, and a USB port for saving whiteboard work. Each pod also comes equipped with the capacity to run Solstice, the third-party software that allows students to beam the screens of their devices (phones/tablets/laptops) to their pod’s projector via an app to share with their groups.

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A glamour shot of my new space in Western’s University College. The natural light is especially welcome!

The room is also big, open, circular in flow, and clean. It is, in other words, the uncanny opposite of every other classroom space I have ever been assigned, at Western or anyplace else.

My first reaction to my WALS tour was:

HOLY SHIT. This classroom is unbelievable!

My second reaction was:

WHY ARE MORE CLASSROOMS NOT LIKE THIS???

I’m not going to delve deeply into the latter question today; the reasons are, I’m sure, more complex than I assume – though maybe not.

(I assume: because retrofitting space is expensive, and upgrading tech is expensive; because universities in my province, let alone everywhere else, are currently being squeezed YET AGAIN by another myopic provincial government; and because frankly, at the end of the day, teaching labour remains undervalued by most of the folks who control the money. Meanwhile, students and teachers, who know experientially the value of good, flexible space to the practice of effective pedagogy, have remarkably little say in how their work is organized physically. ARGH.)

Instead, I’m going to tell you what happened after I caught my breath. I immediately applied to have all of my 2019-20 classes held in the WALS space in my building (spoiler alert: IT WORKED!). Then, I asked Cortney if I could move my current undergraduate class – the history of performance theory class I was teaching in a tatty, furniture-stuffed, under-cleaned and under-resourced room in a nearby building – into my building’s new WALS space right away.

And she said yes.

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My ideal classroom – for all subjects! A light-filled, open-plan studio.

Right after reading week, my intrepid gang of performance theorists and I moved over to our new home. And what a transformation we experienced!

Right away we noticed a difference in our engagement and interaction during class time.

First of all, sitting around pod tables means students are easily organized to see each other, talk to one another (and not just to/at me!), and work together without any excess labour. In our old space, we spent easily 5 minutes at the top of each class trying to move the tables in the room into a seminar configurations, shifting excess tables and chairs as well out of the way as we could. It was annoying and often frustrating; the room showed us that it was not actually meant to be tinkered with, not that much anyway. As the term advanced and our energy levels declined, this work just began to seem onerous. The result? We started simply putting up with badly-arranged tables, spreading ourselves around the room in any way that seemed physically easiest. Conducive to group learning this was not.

In the WALS space, all that extra work was simply removed: now, we just walk in, watch the light come up, plop our stuff at our preferred pods, fire up Solstice on our phones and laptops, and get ready to talk, think, experiment, and learn.

Meanwhile, I noticed a huge difference thanks to the efficiencies the room afforded me as instructor. The instructor’s console is at the centre of the room, but it’s not intrusive; it’s also not organized for me to stand behind, the way a podium is. The console is where I decide what I should show on the screens around the room, when I’m managing the screens, and it’s a place for me to put my stuff. Other than that, it discourages lingering; there’s no way you could “lecture” from such a place. I’ve noticed myself toggling to information or prompts on our class website and then hurrying away from the console, because when I’m at it my back is to the students. (If the room were at capacity, my back would be to half the students, and I’d only be facing about 1/3 of them.)

Where do I position myself, then? I had to work this out over our first few classes. The 15 students in this class are positioned at the three pods “behind” the console control centre (in the left-hand area of the image above); at first I stood between the pods to talk. But then that started to seem weird: I was up and they were seated comfortably. I felt conspicuous.

In a traditional classroom space I would feel more at ease with a standing-sitting dynamic, because the architecture of such a space drives down toward the professor’s centre-front positioning and marks it as a focal point. With that spatial cue, prof standing and students sitting makes architectural “sense”. In this flex space, though, it just feels odd – because the “centre” of the room is not, in fact, the central console, but is divested among each pod. The students are at the spiritual, as well as the architectural, “centre” of the space, and they are seated. So, I realized, I need to be seated, too.

Now, when I prepare to talk to the whole room, I sit down, sometimes backwards on my chair (so I can lean on something!), and then I roll over to the space between the three occupied pods. (Wheels on chairs! Woo hoo!) I regularly reorient my chair physically depending on who is talking, and where they are seated. I move the chair around depending on whether or not a specific pod is reporting back on work. This way, I use my body in the space, and the affordances of the space, to demonstrate to the students their centrality to the space, in particular when their work is on display for the rest of us. I respond to their work, and they to my feedback and prompting, physically and affectively as well as intellectually.

And speaking of that work: we are all IN LOVE with the fabulous electronic white boards! The students have the capacity at their pods to toggle among white board mode, console-screen mode, and Solstice mode, and whenever we are doing group-based learning, I encourage them to shift to the white board and play around with their ideas. Erasing and starting over is easy, and we can share boards among pods, too (although we’ve not yet tried that pro move).

I haven’t yet taken a formal survey to get clear data about how the new space is working for the students, but my anecdotal sense is that they are as keen as I am on it. We are still discovering new tech and new possibilities, and I’ve also created a custom question for their course evaluations about the tech in the room. I’m jazzed for their feedback as I prep for next year. (About which… did I mention I’m excited?!!)

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Student Katie Flannery poses with her pod’s whiteboard learning about Bertolt Brecht.

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Student Ray Reid is feeling less dramatic, perhaps, about his pod’s white board work.

I think a lot about space as a theatre and performance researcher: about how space acts on us to organize our social interactions, and about how our social stratifications and raced, classed, and gendered affiliations dictate – often invisibly – who is “welcome” in certain spaces, and who is manifestly not. I find it remarkable, looking back from the comfort, ease, and adaptability of the WALS space, to think about how disaffecting, how unwelcoming in both a social and a political sense, many of our university classrooms remain. It’s as though they are “not” for learning at all.

This is bonkers! We want our students to discover their potential, to develop creative critical acumen, and to learn from one another as well as from our shared histories and contemporary conundrums. And yet we place them – or rather, we, as students and teachers, are placed – in rooms that often feel more like storage closets (at worst) or sterile meeting rooms (at best) than maker-spaces, zones of discovery.

As far as I’m concerned, all classrooms should be studios: built for the “ah-hah!”, kitted out to the highest possible standard, and arranged in a way that encourages the development of a healthy, supportive, group dynamic, so that we can all take safe risks together as we learn. It’s amazing how important the right space is for the doing of that kind of essential work.

Now, herewith: to celebrate the gift WALS has given me, I offer in return a bit of my new book Theory for Theatre Studies: Space. The “preview” link below will offer you the full introduction, as well as the first part of the book’s first section; the “buy now” link will take you to Bloomsbury’s online shop, where the paperback is on sale for just $11, and the e-book for $13.

TheoryForTheatreStudiesSpace

Preview | Buy Now

 

Enjoy!

Kim

On settling in

Happy September!

If you’re wondering where I’ve been, well, the answer is not on vacation (alas!). Although, nor is it: drowning in class prep and panicking over the re-entry. Because I’m on research leave (thank heaven!) until December.

Where I have been, instead, is moving house – not just to a new place, but to a new city. Nope, I’ve not got a new job – instead, this move is just for me. It’s the first move I have ever made (number 16!), in fact, that is just for me. Not for school, not for job, not because parents, not because partner.

It is purely in order to help me strengthen my work-life balance and improve the quality of my days and nights. Huzzah!

Of course, getting to that huzzah! has not been easy; moving is a total bitch. What with the emotional upheaval, the endless administration (hydro! internet! property tax! boxesboxesboxes!), the disruption of routines, the losing of things, not to mention the weird physical exhaustion and the all too frequent forgetting to eat…

Hell, with a list like that, it sounds *exactly* like I could very easily be gearing up for the teaching term, doesn’t it?

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I was thinking about this weird comparison this afternoon, and remembering what it felt like (five moves ago) for me to arrive both in a new, strange city, and in a new, scary job. Which led me to think, in turn, about those of you reading who may be in that very situation right now – having just moved your home, your life, maybe your family, and who are now getting ready to jump with both feet into new classrooms, new colleagues, new responsibilities and expectations.

You might be feeling overwhelmed. I sure was – back then, and last week, too. Herewith, then, some thoughts (cobbled together from my own rather impressive failures) on how to feel less freaked out, and a bit more settled in.

  1. Do one thing at a time. When I’m unpacking I always lose the plot: I’ll be unwrapping pots and pans one minute, then I’ll go to the bathroom, and the next thing I know I’m trying to sort out the medicine cabinet. Overwhelm breeds a lack of focus; it’s hard not to succumb. Remind yourself that if you do one thing at a time everything will get done – maybe not quickly, but then, it’s not a race. What’s most urgent? The plates and forks, for sure. Finishing the syllabus for day one. Or maybe getting your employee ID card and other HR business sorted. (Getting paid is A Good Thing – it is more important than perfectly polished prep, believe me.) Meeting each of your new colleagues in person can wait; so can that unfinished book chapter (oh yes, it really can). You’ll feel way more at ease by week three, at which point you can return to the missed stuff in peace. (Hint: if you’re truly fretful about missing a deadline or forgetting a task that you need to back-burner now, make a list of unmissable items – then paste that list into a calendar reminder for the first Monday in October.)
  2. Take breaks. During those breaks, eat something. I think I consumed maybe 5000 calories last week; that is not normal and I am not bragging about it. The lack of food correlated to my refusal to take regular breaks from the unpacking; I was convinced that if I just kept going and going and going the house would magically get sorted and life could continue as normal. (I do this every time. EVERY TIME.) Of course, what actually happened is that I got very tired and very hangry, and I cried a bit more than I should have. Had I stopped more often, sat down for 10 minutes, and had a sandwich and some tea, I guarantee I would have felt less sad, less weary, and less anxious. Food is miraculous that way. (Hint: if you’re like me, and you always do what your phone tells you to do, set an alarm for every hour or so. When it goes off, take a short snack or drink break. Don’t omit the snack/drink portion – trust me.)
  3. Don’t be afraid to tell people you’re new, and to ask for help. I’ve run into a lot of neighbours already; my new neighbourhood is dog- and kid-friendly, and there’s a big park up the street where everyone gathers. Folks keep asking me if I have been to X dog park, or Y grocer; when they do, I gamely say “I moved here five days ago! I know nothing! Tell me where that is and why I should go!” It’s not much different when you move to a new job, or a new department; people are going to assume you already know a bunch of stuff about which you have no actual clue. Now, especially if this is your first job, you might be tempted to pretend you’ve already totally got this, in order to appear massively competent and clearly not an imposter. That’s a mistake; trust me. (You are not an imposter; you are simply NEW.) You need someone to explain the photocopier to you, and to show you the quiet coffee shop away from the undergrad traffic. And to help you work out the classroom AV systems! Just ask; you don’t need to appear panicked about it, but you really don’t need to pretend you’re sorted when you’re not. (Among other things, that kind of pretending creates extra emotional labour, which nobody needs!)
  4. When you go home, be at home – even if home is still kind of a mess from the move. It’s hard to relax among boxes, I know – but when you leave the office, even if the prep isn’t quite done, do what you can to leave the job behind. Academics live our work; teachers live our work. But when your life has also just been upheaved, and your stuff is all over the place, and your partner/kids/animals feel the unsettlement too, give all of yourselves a break. Once home, eat the pizza and watch some Netflix. Then maybe tackle some boxes. Do not (do not!) check the work email; let the work of settling in come first. By midterms you’ll be checking that work email all the time, and that will be way, way easier to cope with once your home life is unpacked and nestled in.
  5. It’s totally ok to feel deracinated. This is the word for it, courtesy of my dear friend Steven. Uprooted, pulled from the tender shoots, yanked and tossed sideways. I remember my first year at Western, in an apartment way too big for my modest belongings, in the centre of a city where I didn’t know anyone. Once the teaching term hit I was on the ground, running all the time, trying to catch up to the self I thought I was expected by everyone else to be. Everything you’re feeling is normal – painful, scary even, but also normal. What’s more, everyone you work with knows that feeling, too; we were all new in the department, to the town, and in the classroom once. Try not to judge or blame yourself; there’s nothing whatsoever to be ashamed of here! Breathe through the feelings of anxiety, panic, uprootedness, and overwhelm. Take it one step at a time. And know the feeling will pass.

(Emma The Dog, unsettled, then settled… it’s going to happen. Don’t worry.)

Happy September!
Kim

PS: self-care is hard; I feel like I’m re-learning the basics all the time. Here’s some more advice you might like, from my clever and lovely friend Cate.