Charlotte Canning Interview Part 2

As promised, here is the second half of my chat with Charlotte Canning. Last time, we talked about her (amazing-sounding) grad course and the value of teaching reflection. In the second half of the chat, we delved into public pedagogy, the value of making mistakes, and some of Charlotte’s favourite resources.

KB: What does it mean for you to be a public-facing, activist, teacher?

CC: Until graduate school, my life as a student was all in private schools. So, I didn’t have the public school experience as a young person. Having taught at UT for a very long time now, I am one hundred percent committed to public education. The kinds of diversity of students that we have — not just stuff that we work so hard on like class, race, sexuality, gender but also the experience of first generation students — that’s astonishing to me. It’s not an experience I thought about until I came to a public school.

It forces me to think about important questions: What does it mean to teach and have a public responsibility? What does it mean in terms of being citizens of the state? In terms of access to our work or the kinds of things we should be doing? 

Also, because we’re a state institution, we have a relationship to things like public disclosure laws and open records. Most of what we do is findable by the public. Our salaries are public. We have a very specific relationship to the First Amendment [which addresses freedom of speech, religion and assembly] that our colleagues at private schools don’t have. We have a lot of leeway in terms of speech which is really significant. Sometimes, it makes life more difficult but it’s really valuable. Being in a public institution is something of a gift. At times, it can be frustrating, but at the end of the day, thinking about education as a public good is a profound responsibility.

KB: How does your investment in feminism intersect with your pedagogy?

CC: Feminism is where I came from with all of this. I think about identities. Thinking about access and privilege is crucial to me as a teacher. I have a wonderful colleague in the School of Education, Dr. Richard Reddick. We did a video together on diversity statements for faculty. He came out of a school teaching background. When he came to speak to my students we were talking about privilege, and he’s an African American man, and that he always felt like he had it, when it came to diversity and inclusion. He always felt good. He felt focused. Until one day, he was working with a researcher about gender in the classroom. She observed his teaching over a considerable period of time, and she presented these statistics to him that he called on boys more than he called on girls. He was shocked and appalled, and he fixed it right away. In telling that story, what I heard him say to students is: don’t assume that because you’re savvy in one way that you are in all the ways.

I always say, if you set yourself up as the master and authority, then you can only be threatened when you make a mistake. But, since you’re human, the mistake part is inevitable, so you might as well start off with a sense of collaboration and a sense of learning and changing. So, when those things happen you can easily fold them into the experience for the students rather than it being a barrier, or an embarrassment, or having a detrimental impact with your relationship with the students. I don’t know whether that’s deeply feminist, but it feels very feminist to me. Certainly, thinking through how to create as diverse a pool of teachers out in the world as possible is incredibly important to me.

KB: What is the best pedagogy resource that you’ve pointed students towards?

CC: I change it up a lot every year. I have this secret passion for the history of universities. So, one of the things I have students read is Clark Kerr’s The Uses of the University.  It gets them thinking about teaching in higher education as something that has a history and a context and isn’t just the way it is because that’s the way it is. I want them to think of it as a construct that evolved in a certain way over time, and that their ability to change or intervene in that construct exists. It didn’t come from the sky.

I also really like James Lang’s Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning. The premise of the book is that it often takes years to make new courses and to create relationships between courses, if you’re ever able to do that at all. So, he asks: What can we do tomorrow to make our classes better? I find that really helpful. It’s changed my teaching.

For example, he presents compelling evidence that small quizzes everyday are a great way to help students with retention and ownership of the material. I used to be against quizzes but the way he lays out the research converted me to the idea that giving students multiple ways to recall things is going to help them learn and retain that knowledge. I return over and over to Paulo Freire and bell hooks. I consult Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia constantly.

KB: Any final thoughts?

CC: The final thing I’d like to share is an exercise I developed a few years ago for my university teaching class. I get intensely nervous every time I do it, yet the students respond well.

I have a midterm. I don’t tell them what the midterm will be. I always say, Just review the materials of your notes and you’ll be fine.

For the “midterm,” they have to draw a scenario from a hat. They read the prompt aloud and then they have one minute to think. Then, they have to start talking. And I take notes while they’re presenting. Then, they take the prompt home and have four or five days to write about it and evaluate what they chose to do in class. It gives them a chance to think through what they would’ve done, if they’d had time to prepare.

The scenarios are always real scenarios that I or someone I know has encountered. They range from “a student says something racist in class” to “at the end of the semester having to leave office hours before seeing all the students after no one has come for all those weeks” to “students who express transphobia to a student whose drugs fall out of their pocket.” So, a huge range of possible scenarios.

After we’ve done the midterm, I tell them that the thing I don’t know how to teach them is that so much of pedagogy is thinking on your feet. As you know from being an actor, or whatever, the more you train on your feet, the more likely you are to do a good job of it. So, they get these scenarios totally randomly.

‘Sure, but can you THINK on your feet?’

The students have all said positive things in class about it. They are usually very anxious at first because they worry about getting it right or wrong. But, I always say that one of the points is that there isn’t an easy or obvious right or wrong. We have to rehearse.

Then, we have a class where we talk about the experience of taking the midterm. I identify for them which of the prompts were ones that actually happened to me, and I talk about how I handled them. I emphasize when I did a good job and when I didn’t. A couple of them were from my first year of teaching, and, in retrospect, while I didn’t do anything wrong, I was not as adept as I would be now.

One of the things I really struggle with teaching teaching is: how do you teach the intangibles? You can teach someone how to structure a syllabus or to think about a  lesson plan. But, when you’re live in the room with the students, you need to be able to be adept. So, you can’t just think about the content. You also have to think about how you act in the moment and how that will or won’t be efficacious for learning.  I think that’s the hardest thing to teach. So, what I do in the class is try to help them think about the speed bumps or scary moments, so that they know if they don’t get it one hundred percent right, that’s okay. You can come back. You can talk to the students again.

Interview: Charlotte Canning

At the beginning of 2020, I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Charlotte Canning, professor in the Performance as Public Practice stream and Head, Oscar G. Brockett Center for Theatre History and Criticism at the University of Texas Austin’s Department of Theatre & Dance. We had a lively, fascinating, conversation about pedagogy, teaching-teachers, and teaching as public practice. The first part of the chat is below, with the second part to follow next week!

Dr. Charlotte Canning

KB: Can you introduce yourself? What’s your current position, and what sort of teaching do you do?

CC: I am the Frank C. Erwin, Jr. Centennial Professor in Drama and have been on the faculty in the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of Texas at Austin since 1993.

One of the courses I teach is “Supervised Teaching.” This is a very bland title and an inaccurate description of the class. The class itself is really an introduction to teaching for graduate students. It’s required by the university. In our program, it is a very important part of our core curriculum because we invest very heavily in teaching as a mode of public engagement for scholars. We talk a lot about the scholar-artist-citizen-activist. Teaching is absolutely, in our opinion, central to that formulation.

It has really been an important course for the Performance as Public Practice students. Although, I should point out, it’s not just our students in the class. It’s for any graduate student in the department. That’s terrific, because it means we’ve got folks in the room who are coming from a range of disciplines. Unlike in, say, the history department, where everyone will teach history of some kind, when I taught it in fall 2019 I had playwrights, actors, dramaturgs, scholars and so on. So, you’re really having to think about pedagogy in certain kinds of holistic and heterogenous ways.

KB: Wow. I have attended several different graduate programmes and have never experienced that kind of a class. From the student’s perspective, what’s the feedback back been? What’s most useful? Least useful?

CC: I’m not sure what they think is the least useful. They’re too savvy to say that to me! But, from their comments, what I get is that one of the things they really value is the part of the class that they call the “micro-teach.” For the micro-teach, you submit a lesson plan for an entire day and then you teach ten minutes of that lesson plan to the class.

In Performance as Public Practice, this course rotates between three of us who teach it, depending on yearly schedules, etc. We share the same syllabus but each tweak it every time we get it. This year, I had the students work on creating a rubric for evaluating teaching. This was, in part, to demonstrate how, even though they’re useful, in a way, rubrics don’t really work. The exercise of creating it, using it, and then evaluating it was enormously helpful. It helped the students see that you do the best you can when you’re designing a rubric and then, in practice, you see what you should’ve valued and didn’t.

A randomly searched general essay marking rubric because … oh rubrics.

So, for the “micro-teach”, we had the rubrics that the students created plus colleague evaluations. I took notes as they taught. I evaluated the lesson plan and the self-evaluation they did. So, the feedback they got back was really comprehensive and, I think, really valuable.  They would love to do it twice but unfortunately there’s just not enough time in a semester to do the micro-teaches twice.

KB: What do you focus on in your feedback to these students?

CC: I try to do it in the context that we can all learn how to do this. Nobody was born knowing how to teach despite all the sentimental claptrap that’s out there. So, with each student, I push hard for them to think about how they can be an effective teacher. What, exactly, do they have? What do they bring to the table in the classroom that is very much theirs? Within each situation, I try to figure out how to support the direction in which they’re developing. I’m really lucky in that I’ve never taught the class where the students aren’t 100% committed. So, I’m never saying anything completely negative in my feedback. It’s more, “Take this and keep going” or “Don’t be afraid to do it, that was great.”

KB: What have you learned from teaching teachers?

CC: I don’t know what the teaching version of an editor is called, but in the same way that teaching writing makes you a better editor, I think teaching to teach — teaching teaching, you might call it — makes you a better teacher. That’s certainly been true for me. My syllabuses and assignments have gotten clearer and sharper. Teaching teaching makes me pause more often and be less sure  of myself – in the right way! Not a lack of confidence, but in the sense of being willing to stop and say, is that the right reaction? Is that what we should be doing? And, if the answer is no, it doesn’t undo me. I don’t feel like “oh my God, now I’ve done something terrible.” It’s like, “oh, okay, yeah, this needs to change.”

I have this story I tell. A few years ago, I was team-teaching a class with a colleague. It was online. We were doing a unit on acting. In the middle of it, we said, “Everybody stand up.” As we did that, I suddenly thought, “We have 700 students, we don’t know if all of them can stand up.” It gave me pause. We were ableists. But, it also made me ask: What do we mean when we ask the students to stand up? What do we mean theoretically? What do we mean in terms of what we expect to happen? I realized it was a physical coming to attention. It was about shifting the circumstances.

If I hadn’t made that mistake, I wouldn’t have truly thought through what I meant by “stand up” or confronted my ableist bias. That’s the kind of analytical skill that I’ve gained as a teacher by teaching teaching. I don’t know if I would’ve been able to think that through as well if I hadn’t had to be in front of students and talk about teaching all the time.

KB: I love that story. I feel like some of my best reflections have come from moments of breakdown. Those moments, while sometimes uncomfortable, have forced me to question myself: What was I trying to do there? What did I actually do? What’s the relationship between those two things. 

CC: Right! In this case: how do you shift the circumstances without depending on a single type of physical action? Is the physical action even the point?

KB: And, of course, it’s not.

CC: That was a great moment in terms of me thinking through what am I trying to do and why. That kind of reflection and evaluation is what I’ve got from teaching teaching.

***

Don’t forget to check back next week for the second half of the interview, in which Charlotte and I chat about public teaching, feminist pedagogy, and books!

New Year, Old Memories

Last November I traveled to Washington, D.C. for the annual conference of the American Society for Theatre Research; while there I had the chance to catch up with one of the first students I ever taught in a classroom of my own.

Dr Colleen Kim Daniher, Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at San Francisco State University, received her PhD from Northwestern University; before that, amongst many other things, she took  English 289E: Modern Drama (F/W 2005-06) with me at the University of Western Ontario, during my very first term on the tenure track.

Colleen Kim Daniher, in hands down the best prof headshot I’ve ever seen.

Colleen just completed her own first term on the tenure track, with a new baby to boot, and not long after we ate dinner together in D.C. she sent me a lovely, warm message telling me what my class had meant to her.

Any teacher knows what an honour it is to read such words; I was touched beyond measure. But I was also, slightly, amused – because that class was hands-down the hardest I’ve ever taught. It was trial by fire, mistake after mistake. To this day, Every Christmas I remember sitting in my bedroom in my rented flat in downtown London, Ontario on Boxing Day, holding the envelope full of anonymous midterm surveys I’d collected before the break, terrified (and I mean TERRIFIED: sweaty, heart racing, you name it) that they all read: YOU ARE A TERRIBLE TEACHER!!!

Not that kind. But you get it.

After reading Colleen’s note, and wiping the smile off my face, I had an idea. What if she and I did a reflection exercise about that class? Clearly it had an impact on her I didn’t readily recall, and clearly it took a toll on me she didn’t know about. Further, it’s obvious we both took major lessons from that year into our independent pedagogical futures. What were those lessons?

I decided to ask; Colleen was game. Herewith, the results.

1. What’s your strongest memory from English 289E: Modern Drama? What about this memory has stuck with you over all this time?

Colleen

My strongest memory from English 289E was the way it asked me and my fellow English literature classmates to harness performance practice as a mode of dramatic analysis. I remember being confused and yet very taken with the idea that performance could be a way of interrogating text, an idea implicit to the weekly small group scene studies that were assigned throughout the course. The basic premise was that each week, a group of about five or six students in our class of thirty would stage an excerpt from a text we were studying that week. This group was called “The Company.” The class met twice weekly (for one whole calendar year!), so we would have a more conventional professor-run lecture on Tuesdays, and then on Thursdays, we, the students, would essentially lead the day’s conversation. First, “The Company” would perform their interpretation of their chosen scene for the entire class, then another small group of students (called “The Colleague-Critics”) would have to respond, leading the rest of the class in a discussion of the staging just witnessed. The groups were randomly assigned and fixed through the run of the semester, so you would get to know your group-mates quite well and rotate several times as a unit through both Company and Colleague-Critic roles.

It was unlike any class activity I had ever been a part of. I remember prior to my first small group performance (a staging of Ubu Roi) reading and re-reading the syllabus instructions, trying to “figure out” what the assignment was actually about. In hindsight, the hardest part of the assignment was shedding my presuppositions around performance as a (finished, polished) product. I can’t speak for the other students in the class, but the invitation to perform in a drama class was one that I was personally hungering for: I was a theatre nerd in a university without a formal theatre department. I got my kicks in the music department as a Voice major and in the student-run, on-campus theatre organization [Theatre Western]. However, what we were being asked to do with performance in the class was completely different than what I was used to as a fairly experienced musician and actor. We had very little rehearsal time, scripts-in-hand, and the barest of production values. The point, I would learn, was not to “put on a performance” but to think through performance in the act of its doing. It was a bit opaque at the time, but utterly intoxicating. In fact, this first taste of the conjoining of performance as a critical-intellectual endeavor and performance as an embodied practice is what I live for today as a Performance Studies scholar!

Also: Brecht! So much Brecht. Everything I now know about Brecht I learned in this class.

The muppets: seriously epic.

Kim

The methodology Colleen describes above was a hybrid of stuff I learned from one of my undergraduate mentors, Nora Foster Stovel, at the University of Alberta (where I completed my BA), and from my postdoctoral mentor, Jill Dolan, at UT Austin. Looking back through Colleen’s description I realize that what I was asking the students to do was basic practice-as-research (PBR), but at the time, believe it or not, I didn’t have that language to share! (I was trained in Shakespeare, kids.) I didn’t actually realize until now that it was as opaque as it seemed to Colleen and her peers; that said, my experiences of performances up to this point in my career had been less polish, more muck. No wonder we struggled!

My strongest memory of the class, meanwhile, is that moment on my bedroom floor I describe above, and the problems that led to it. While Colleen recalls perfectly the shape of the class’s learning week as it finally settled, we began in a much less tidy place. In the first term, I held a two-hour lecture in our Tuesday block, and the student performances happened on a Thursday. Quickly I realized that the students were struggling to figure out what kinds of questions to ask about their peers’ performances, how to extend the knowledge those performances were making. We had trouble filling the hour and I was devastated; they were looking at me for direction and I felt like I was failing. This problem consumed my first term at Western and produced more than a few nights in tears.

Eventually, after reading the mid-term anonymous feedback (SPOILER ALERT: not a terrible teacher!), I decided on a change: we’d swap the second hour of Tuesday for the performances, then come back Thursday and extend our learning by bringing the performance and our readings for the week into fulsome conversation. This took the pressure off the students to figure out all the performance things, and it helped me to model what performance research really looks like in practice.

It was the best teaching decision I ever made. It reminded me 1) not to be afraid to admit difficulties and make changes; and 2) to trust the students to show me the way.

2. What aspects of the class have you found yourself thinking about as you’ve developed a research and teaching career? IE: was something “inspiring” and in what way? (NB: I know this may be another way of saying question 1.)
 
Colleen

I continue to teach and preach performance practice as a serious mode of intellectual engagement. As an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at San Francisco State University, I teach courses that follow a very similar two-part model of instruction as English 289E: lecture/discussion one day a week, and an applied performance lab on the second day. In my classes (“Performance and Identity” and “Performance Art”) my students respond to the course material through discussion, writing, and the actual doing of performance.

Integrating performance practice in the classroom is sometimes the hardest thing, especially as a recently arrived teacher at a new institution (the logistics of finding space! of scheduling performance assignments!). But my training, first, as an undergraduate student in Modern Drama, then as a graduate student in Northwestern’s Performance Studies department, instilled in me a strong sense of the value of integrating performance practice and theory. For me, it’s a matter of the politics of knowledge transmission: I want my students to see and to understand that performance is a legitimate site of knowledge inquiry and production, not (only) a specialized domain of artistic activity. It’s an expressive tool and an analytic lens that can help us understand the world around us. And looking back, I can see that Modern Drama gave me my first taste of that specific orientation towards performance.

Dear Kim,

Here it is! My responses are probably too long, but it turns out I had a lot to say. Also, so much fun remembering : )

My takeaway: it was more fun being a student than a teacher ; )

-C

Kim

Modern Drama in that first year on the tenure track was, for me, my first inkling that thinking seriously about the practice of teaching was going to become a central part of my academic career. Unlike Colleen at the time, I already had a sense of the importance of practice-based research creation (thank you, UofT and UT!), but what I didn’t have was the confidence of an experienced teacher.

The hardest thing about that year was realizing that I was going to mess up, A LOT, and that I needed to figure out what to do about it. After the winter break, when I explained to the students how things were going to shift in our schedule and why this shift was a good idea, I took the time to tell them (in aggregate, of course) about the things they had told me on their anonymous midterm surveys, and how their sharing had led me directly to tweaks I thought would benefit us all. Basically, I told them outright what I’d assumed they’d understood all along: that we were collaborators, a team, and their input was as crucial as mine to our shared learning success.

The hardest thing about that year was realizing that I was going to mess up, A LOT, and that I needed to figure out what to do about it.
-K

Since then, I work in every new classroom to name collaboration as the core of my teaching practice: I introduce myself as a team member as well as a guide, I work on building classroom community in the early weeks of term, and I explain my process meta-cognitively as much as possible, also building in meta-cognitive reflection practices for students along the way. In my Theatre Studies classes, I don’t always now use the lab model Modern Drama followed, but we always do active learning labour and then think about the “how” and the “why” of our shared practice.

3. What’s your memory of Kim as a teacher? (Here, please be honest. I love when everyone says how amazing I am *coughs bashfully*, but that term was SO HARD for me. I’d appreciate honest recollections from the other side of the desk!)

Colleen

Kim was easily one of the best undergraduate professors I had ever had. It was just so obvious how much she cared and how hard she was working for us as students. This is something I try to remind myself of when I’m feeling down about my own teaching: how letting your students see you working hard for them can be just as effective as the mythic “perfectly-planned” course.

I remember the epic-long, publication-worthy performance responses she would give to The Company group members after our in-class performances; the incredibly detailed syllabus; her impassioned lectures on alienation effect and Elin Diamond’s “the true-real”; the thoughtfulness with which she worked with her graduate student TA. One thing that especially stands out to me is the informal course evaluation she offered to us at midterm; I can’t remember all the details now, but I think we answered three prompts: “what’s working, what’s not, and what would you change.” We came back from winter break, and then she actually went over our anonymized feedback with us, outlining how she would implement our feedback. And I remember the course (especially the scene study Thursdays) changing for the better from that point on.

This is something I try to remind myself of when I’m feeling down about my own teaching: how letting your students see you working hard for them can be just as effective as the mythic “perfectly-planned” course.
-C

Even then, I was so impressed that she cared to know what we thought before the course was over. Today, the informal midterm course evaluation is a key tool in my own pedagogical tool-kit! There are some semesters where I almost talk myself out of giving it, and then I think back to how seen and heard I felt in Kim’s class, and I am never disappointed with the results.

Kim

Oh my god the floundering! To this day I think of the crappiness of some of those classes, the epic time over-running, how I knew students must be so frustrated with how much I was very clearly overdoing it (#newteacher). Reading Colleen’s thoughts now – and about her memory of the midterm survey! Holy gosh! – honestly reminds me how valuable those early, overly earnest pedagogical tools were.

Many of them have morphed now, or fallen away from me; I rarely teach full-year classes anymore, so often talk myself out of surveying the students in mid-October or mid-February. Hearing Colleen’s take-away here – students need to feel seen and heard; they need to know they know things! That we are all learning together! – is a boost in the arm better than any flu jab. It’s a new lease on my own teaching.

Thanks, Colleen. Maybe from now on we can mentor each other.
-K

Teaching Transformation: Educating therapists in a relational context

When I went to school as a child and then as a young adult, I never thought of school as anything other than a place you learned things. I learned to do some chemistry, I learned about philosophy, I learned about feminism. Yet I didn’t become any of those things through my learning, at least not in a way I noticed.

After a few years of trying to be a lawyer after I learned how to do it, my great dissatisfaction with that process led me to a place where 1. I had a mental breakdown and 2. I needed to figure out what was next, because I clearly had not learned to be a lawyer, even though I knew how to do it.

Thanks to https://morguefile.com/creative/jim113/1/all for the photo

I wandered around in the wilderness for a year or so and then found something that looked promising. It was a tiny private psychotherapy training program and now, 19 years later, I’m a teacher in that program. In that school, I had a very alternative experience of learning a thing. I didn’t learn about it. I learned to become it and I did that through performing it, from the very first day.

So, when Kelsey approached me to contribute to this blog and I saw the blurbs meant to be the seeds of blossoming blog entries to come, I nearly jumped out of my skin to say yes to this project.

I am not an academic in the traditional sense. I have lots of education and more than a few degrees, none of which ever formally taught me to teach. I source my skill in the classroom from, amongst other things, my passionate belief in the power of the work I do.[1]

The ideas that I discuss here may or may not reside in the academic literature as a methodology or approach and I will freely admit I wouldn’t know. However, I also know there is value in the sort of “from the ground up” perspective I’m bringing here and I know that is one of the goals of bringing more voices into this forum.

37662c40222df7ead3aa82d53fd7b509

Professional learning can be a very passive experience. After all, the idea of professional education involves making sure that students acquire a set of knowledge and skill that meets a “universal standard” within some sort of regulatory frame. Universal standards are often codified by way of content or a practical skill and the way a student demonstrates them is through testing or performing a task.

Those elements are all present in my teaching. We ask students to read material and demonstrate the understanding of it through engagement in writing and discussion. We also ask them to practice in front of their teachers and peers through exercises and practice therapy dyads. Yet, I’m also aware that we do something else with these students in the way we are teaching them, something more profound than a knowledge and skill acquisition endeavour. It’s this element that I want to explore here.

My first question to myself is:

How do I even know this is different than other kinds of teaching or professional education?

I suppose I can answer that because I’ve done quite a bit of other kinds and nothing ever felt like this to me. I can also observe that I was asked to come teach this thing most profoundly on the basis that, in my every day work and life, I was the thing that I was being asked to teach. I want to highlight this simple language I’m using. I was asked because I “was the thing”, not because “I knew how to do the thing”.

Let me explain the “thing” a little more.

The approach we teach is a modality of psychotherapy but it isn’t really a technique, as narrowly understood. I like to tell my students that it’s a “sensibility” or a “way of being” in session that generates the conditions that allow for healing and growth.

Ideally, we create a therapeutic container in which a client feels safe, connected, emotionally regulated and profoundly understood. In that sort of relationship, stalled developmental processes reengage and all manner of things (symptoms, patterns, awareness, relational skill) improve.

So, I am tasked with somehow getting my students to a place where they can be the kind of person who can skillfully provide that kind of environment. Not only that, I want them to know how to handle what comes up when that environment is difficult for the client to create, maintain or tolerate. That is HARD. It would be extra hard if all we did was read books about it and write papers tests on it and then try to do it with only some vague notion of “active listening” and not a lot else.[2]

The question is: How do we do it? 

The answer? By “being the thing”.

Foundationally, we try engage all of our students as authentically connected and caring human beings. Our students are in a set of complex processes. These processes include not only the professional education they are engaged in but also their lives, relationships and histories outside school. We assume and invite them to impact and be impacted by our process.

Likewise, the facilitators are in process, impacted by the relationships within the teaching environment and our own lives and histories. We are constantly aware and mindful of how we leverage all of this into the transformative work of becoming a therapist. Becoming a therapist and being a client are parallel processes in this model.

For example, in a relational therapy, a client can eventually come to expect that their therapist will consistently provide feedback that evidences that therapist’s profound understanding of the client’s subjective state. This is the core experience that allows for the reactivation of developmental processes. Sometimes, the therapist doesn’t get it right and sometimes that results in a retraumatizing experience for the client, complete with a raft of negative emotions, angry outbursts and hurt feelings.

When this happens, it is the therapist’s job to untangle the interaction in a manner that conveys an understanding of how it happened, the therapist’s own role in the relational “miss” and also, if possible, to deepen the client’s understanding of how their implicit relational knowings (developed early in life) contribute to the intensity of hurt and dysregulation. This is a delicate dance that somehow conveys acceptance and understanding while encouraging re-evaluation of old ways of being and promoting affect integration and regulation.

Similarly, students have an expectation of being held in this program a certain way, even if it is only at the level of “teach me the things I need to know”. Inevitably, we fail them somehow and, in those moments, we are challenged to acknowledge, repair and deepen our understanding of the relational event that precipitated their disappointment.

Susan Tarhish

Susan Tarshis

We try very hard not to hide behind institutional systems of defense and deflection but rather invite the issues into process so that we can resolve them in a relationally sound way. By that I mean a way that promotes feelings of security, growth, deepening connection and community.

If all that sounds like a lot of work, well, you are darn right it is. Why would anyone ever agree to teach with those kinds of really intimate demands for relational engagement, with a student body of nearly 40 people?

My gut answer is that it is the most important job in the world because it’s teaching people to go out and do one of the most important jobs in this world. I am not even talking about the job of being a Registered Psychotherapist in the province of Ontario. I’m talking about going out in the world knowing how to skillfully navigate your relational environment in a way that feeds healthy community. I’m talking about “being the thing”.

Maybe this is sounding profoundly arrogant, that I not only teach people to be good therapists but also help them to be better people.

Yet, I’ll stand my ground on that one. I KNOW I am a better, more skilled, more able, more open, more resilient human in relationship because of the work I did in this program.

When our students graduate, most of them (certainly not all of them) speak to the profound change, including turmoil, that the training brought to their lives. They speak to the complicating of their emotional and relational landscape and their gratitude and wonder at the transition they have made.

It’s not perfect. It’s messy and sometimes it even hurts but teaching this way is one of the most impactful things I have done with my life thus far. I’m pretty sure that’s a definition of an “Activist Classroom”.

[1] The thoughts I’ve put together here are based on my experience and not meant to be the official position or methodology of the school.

[2] I will confess this may have been my experience in the more academically formal environment in which I got my University education in counselling.

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