On literacy, in the age of misinformation

Around Christmastime, I had a small freak-out on Facebook. It was prompted by a comment left online in response to some public writing I had done elsewhere. The comment was not, strictly speaking, invalid, but it did do an impressive job of missing my point. It preferred to read my words superficially, filter them through a pre-existing axe, and then grind away, chips flying directly into my face.

Feeling misrepresented and misunderstood, I wrote the following on my FB page:

When I write for a public audience, I remember that most readers are barely literate. That is: they can read the words and understand the words. That is it.

Time for a radical humanities intervention, peeps. This is our year.

Harsh? Yes – as one of my colleagues (a totally sympathetic dude) pointed out. But, hey – it was to my friends, folks who know me. Besides, it got at what I had been feeling since early November: in a moment in which fake news = (alternative) “facts”, and pretty much everything that we encounter in the public sphere needs to be treated with exceptional care and more-than-usual levels of skepticism as a result, what exactly can be said to constitute civic literacy?

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I back-pedalled on FB, of course; I hardly wanted my friends and family to think I meant THEM. But I continued to stew about this question as the holidays gave way to the mid-winter doldrums. Then I met my (lovely) group of undergraduate students in Performance Theory. Smart? Sure. Engaged? More than most, I’d wager. But quickly it became apparent to me that not all of my cultural references were landing – and peeps, I keep up to date, rest assured.

What was going on?

This is when I learned – first from a colleague with an especially savvy and tuned in twenty-something daughter, then from the kids themselves – that our friends the millennials are not on Netflix; rather, they are hanging out on Youtube. So I decided to ask the class what was up. I asked them to tell me about how Youtube figured in their daily lives. They told me:

  • YT is free, which makes it a very compelling place to get both information and entertainment regularly and consistently;
  • it’s not uncommon for the students I’m teaching to spend significant amounts of time binge-watching extremely short Youtube videos on topics that range from applying make-up to the history of the 1960s;
  • the smart kids (IE: those in my classes) prefer Youtube to social media alternatives like Snapchat; it’s thought to be more “intellectual” (no, really).

I admit this caused another existential crisis in my brain. After all, the very idea that *intellectual* is now a competition between Youtube and Snapchat would, I think, make Willow Rosenberg turn in her electroshock hands and Buffy herself declare an unbeatable apocalypse. (OK, maybe not unbeatable… but up there with Glory, no doubt about it.)

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Where god, WHERE was Willow when we needed her?

OK. So I don’t actually think any of the students in my PT class would have voted for Agent Orange. But I also do not think the state of epistemological affairs they reported to me is unrelated to what happened last year in both Britain and the U.S. And note that I’m not suggesting that it’s the barrage of information we receive, across such a huge range of forums both free and paid, that’s the real problem here; I think of greatest import is the way that information is curated for us online, and the ease with which we are encouraged to accept curation as a kind of peer review by another (and less “elitist”) name.

Youtube queues up the next video it thinks I should watch, based on what I just watched, automatically; Facebook’s algorithms advertise to me in my newsfeed and encourage me to get into what my friends are into. Every website I visit links me to another website just like it. If I’m not careful about asking questions and remaining skeptical as I browse (a horrifyingly pacifying activity, btw), I can easily slide into consuming consensus tailor-made for me and my viewing habits by those who stand to benefit, monetarily and otherwise.

Youtube has something else important in common with The Donald and politicians like him (I’m glancing sidelong at both Rob Ford and Justin Trudeau, btw): it communicates a huge range of information with greater and lesser degrees of accuracy and fictional embellishment as unvarnished, as real, as just like (just for) YOU. It’s extremely easy to be seduced by its logic: that video is made by “real” people who want to share stuff that they know/that happened to them/that they do all the time; why shouldn’t we believe they know what they’re on about? Youtube as medium lends the messages of truthfulness and democratic access to every single thing posted there – that’s its power, but also the danger it poses to our ability to ask useful questions about how our infotainment is constructed, by whom and for whom, who pays, and who ultimately benefits from our willingness simply to believe in the truth of what we are seeing.

This, then, is the paradox of our social moment: perhaps more than ever before, we – the makers-cum-consumers of information, democratised – are in a position where we need to be critically tuned-in all the time, or else (we know what comes next). The problem is that now, more than ever before, we’re constantly, seamlessly, being encouraged to recognise our infotainment as real, authentic, simply “true” – and to accept the (curated) hunt for authenticity as itself an act of critical thinking.

Civic literacy resides inside this paradox – except that paradoxes are no longer considered valuable; they are complicated, so probably “fake”. The opposite of real, simple, true.

In a comment piece for the latest issue of TDR: The Drama Review, my friend and colleague at Northwestern University, Tracy C. Davis, examines this very terrain, and links it explicitly to questions about the state of public education:

I watched the Republican National Convention heartsore and with mouth agape. I felt for schoolteachers in conservative districts who, when classes resume, would have to swim upstream to explain plagiarism. I ached for the community organizers, religious leaders, and other civic-minded individuals who would try to counter the doctrine of hate, fear, and loathing that speakers urged upon the delegates and audiences at home. But more than anything, I wondered how a nation with compulsory education
in every state and where in 2015 the federal government appropriated more than $37 billion for K–12 education and $43.5 billion for post-secondary education could understand so little about logic.

(TDR is available here – note that Tracy’s article is free for download)

The problem of Trump (and of 2016) is a basic failure of education – of liberal arts education. It’s not a failure of educators in the liberal arts, please note, but rather of our ever-declining cultural investment in what that kind of an education means, should mean, and should do for us as a society.

The same voices that tell us, variously, that Hillary is crooked, that Obama wasn’t born in America, and that watching three videos on Youtube will prepare you to renovate your bathroom (or teach you all there is to know about the history of civil rights in America), are all heavily, financially as well as culturally, invested in making us think that there’s literally no “use value” in the arts, and that’s why going to university and taking a STEM degree is a smarter use of your time and money. These same voices insist loudly that universities make workers, or job candidates – not citizens – and that universities need to take in more and more students while also cutting programs and saving money (usually in the arts… because saving money is a public good, right?). Logic, as Tracy notes, fails utterly here – but the current of “common sense” is strong.

Tracy’s comment piece is, in the main, a reflection on her trip to the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, last summer. She went because she wanted to understand how Christian, conservative Americans were being asked to think and absorb information by their cultural curators – by those who purported to share their affiliations and have their best interests at heart. This is how she ends the article:

The quaint evasion and equivocation of political doublespeak may be a thing of the past, for it has become acceptable to tackle questions head-on with fabrication, unrelated elements, and sheer flights of fancy. Instead of utilizing critical thinking to scrutinize arguments, critical thinking has become a synonym for identifying the paradox, complexity, or conundrum, and then resolving it by the least rigorous means.

What do we do about this? How do we reclaim the public, civic value of rigour, paradox, of asking questions and watching skeptically, after all we’ve just been through?

I don’t have an answer; I’ve been holding off writing this post in part because of that. But I have a hunch that if there is an answer, it has a lot to do with theatre and performance – and thus with those of us who teach performance, both as a practice and as a set of critical social tools.

Performance is not, after all, simply the means by which Mr. D. got elected… although it really is that. Performance is a means of receiving and communicating knowledge; it is a set of social codes enacted in the public sphere; it is a history of civic engagement that reaches all the way back to the Greek polis, for better and for worse. And it is, of course, at the very, very heart of what I describe above – the Youtube culture that expects all mediated entertainment to come glossed as somehow “more real”, believable, confidence-inspiring, than the stuff that goes on in the streets (inaugurations and rallies and marches on Washington).

Unpacking performance as central to what just happened, to how we live now and ever have lived, means thinking carefully about what it means to “be real”, about who counts (or does not count) as real, about who decides, and about how the paradigms of “realness” shift and change over time – and usually in the interests of the wealthiest and most powerful among us.

How can we, as theatre and performance educators, bring this message to a broader public in a world that looks, but isn’t really, culturally literate? What are the stakes of this game? If information has become “democratised” to our detriment, can we democratise the teaching of performance theory and practice to help salvage this situation?

I’d welcome your thoughts on all of the above. A number of my colleagues are doing great work in this direction already (check out the special “Views and Reviews” section of Canadian Theatre Review 161, winter 2015, for example), and I’ve just been invited to guest-edit a special issue of Research in Drama Education which will explore this stuff and more.

But, truly, I don’t have answers right now, and I’m scared – like many of us. We’re being told, more and more, that the arts deserve less and less (money, time, interest) – even as we know, just as I did back in December on Facebook, that this is THE moment when the world needs radical humanities intervention most.

How, god on earth my friends HOW, do we make such an intervention, and make it land?

Uncertainly,

Kim

On the freedom to move, and the freedom to be, part the last

(Over the holiday period I’ve done a series of posts about mobility, access, and equality. Read the previous posts here, here, and here.)

Over the Christmas break I got promoted. What a terrific gift at a challenging time of year. The promotion was especially welcome news because I wasn’t convinced, until the very last letter was signed, that it was actually going to happen; I was going up on the strength of a lot of edited work and teaching labour, not on the back of the coveted “second monograph” that is the “gold standard” in most academic departments like mine. So I’m genuinely chuffed to report that the external examiners, the internal committee, my Chair, Dean, and Provost all decided the work I’d done was in every respect worthy of promotion. A happy new precedent at my school, I hope.

This promotion doesn’t come with lots of added frills, mostly just bragging rights: I’ve got to the top of the academic food chain. But it has also come at an opportune time, just as I’ve been thinking about how and when and where we move, what privileges many of us can and cannot access – and how sometimes those who seem most mobile are in fact most profoundly stuck.

Academics have weird jobs. Those of us in tenured or tenure-stream positions get to work from home a lot of the time, and are often jetting around to conferences and paper-giving events around the world. I’ve piggy-backed most of my holidays for the last decade on top of cool conferences in Asia, Europe, and the states, airfare paid by my employer or an external granting agency. I’m writing this post in my pyjamas.

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We are, in other words, gifted with flexible time, the means to travel, and an awful lot of cultural power besides.

But that’s hardly the whole story. Most importantly, and worth mentioning straight away, is that those of us in cozy jammies are truly the gifted few: a shocking number of our colleagues work contract positions without benefits or job guarantees. They go to those same conferences, too, but on their own dime most of the time and in desperate need to land a more permanent job. They struggle under the heaviest teaching loads at most universities, and sometimes under heavy admin loads too. They work to survive, but appear outwardly to be mobile professionals. And that’s the way universities like it: the less attention drawn to the actual working conditions of sessionals, the better for a school’s bottom line.

(This is a subject that has been much written about, and my own experience of it is as an outsider, so I’m not going to focus on it here. But I want to direct attention its way, and for those interested in reading more I recommend the terrific work of Melonie Fullick in University Affairs.)

So being among the lucky, tenured few brings plenty of certainty, and stability, to be sure. And I am so, so grateful for both. But sometimes certainty and stability hide other problems – and I know these problems are relative, of course, but they are also real. I talked in my first mobility post, back in December, about the value of feeling placed in the world: knowing where we are rooted allows us to fly free. Those without roots – those who must migrate in order to survive – suffer the hard strains of place’s very lack. But being in place can also mean being profoundly stuck, and more than a few academics I know feel stuck, trapped in fact, in the very jobs that guarantee their livelihoods.

There are a few reasons for this.

The first is scarcity: tenured jobs, particularly in the Arts and Humanities where I teach, are fewer and further between than ever. Partly this is cyclical, but it’s primarily a side effect of the rise of neoliberal university culture, which depends increasingly on flex-time labour (sessional contractors without benefits), promotes STEM fields over liberal arts ones, and encourages instructors to teach toward future employment, rather than toward broad and informed citizenship.

(My own faculty is in big trouble these days, as are many of its kin across North America, because numbers in our classes are dropping – we tend to offer more citizenship training than job training, which seems nebulous and irrelevant to lots of people who just want to get good jobs/their kids to get good jobs. However, because our budget remains tied in large part to the number of bodies in our seats, fewer students wanting to learn about art, literature, and foreign languages right now means less money for all of those things in the future – especially for replacement faculty for those retiring today.)

In other words: when you get offered a tenure-stream academic job, dammit, you cling to it. Doesn’t matter where the hell it is.

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And there’s reason number two: universities are not exactly like engineering firms. Even if Richard Florida rates both profs and engineers as high-impact “creatives“, the fact is that as an academic you don’t generally get to pick the city you want to live in, or even the province or state. Even massive global cities boast at most half a dozen major schools, not all of which will have departments in your field (and even fewer of which will have hires coming up anytime soon). Then there’s the question of whether you could even afford to live in London/New York/Tokyo on a professor’s salary! (Answer: barely.) On the flip side, many universities, including very good ones, are in deep-space places: far from major cities, in towns where those not associated with the university resent it, or in a region that doesn’t share your political values in any way. If you realize one day, as a colleague of mine confessed to me recently, that you literally cannot bear the place your school is located as a home for your family one more minute, you’ve got two choices: massive upheaval, assuming you can find a comparable job elsewhere (big assumption), or leave the academy altogether and start over from scratch.

That brings me to reason number three academics get stuck: workload creep. Lots of us are in jobs where the day-to-day is so onerous it eats our research time in huge mouthfuls. Can’t publish the book/major article/make the major breakthrough at the lab, can’t move; it’s as simple as that, no matter how good an undergrad chair you are/how high your teaching scores tend to be. When I look at my permanent, tenured colleagues who struggle under 3- or 4-class per term teaching loads, plus administrative duties, I am genuinely embarrassed by how much time I have to write, edit, and publish. Yes, of course, I just got promoted to full professor at a relatively young age because I am totally gifted and amazing! But, no, wait: I ACTUALLY got promoted because I have made a series of life choices that mean I work in a department where I teach a 2-2 load, in classes with maybe 25 students each in them, and rarely have to do onerous admin without lots of help.

Now, about those choices… there have been some serious trade-offs. Some of them sit very heavy on me.

Some of them have broken my heart. But –

I know, I know: talk to the hand. We’re damn lucky. We have good jobs. We have salaries, benefits, and can’t be fired at the whim of our employers because we are protected by strong unions (often) and academic freedom (more often). Being a prof is fucking cushy, I won’t deny it. But it doesn’t mean we’re all just delighted, bouncing through the heather. Most of us are, in fact, depressed. Exhausted. Some of us are commuting huge distances on alternate weekends. Unsure if we’ll ever get out from underneath the job’s grind. Afraid to leave because where could we go? If we could actually get another offer at a better place, could our partners find work too? Would the kids mind moving thousands of kilometres away? And what if it was just more of the same?

While I was writing this post and fighting with myself to get the tone right, so I didn’t sound like an overprivileged douchebag whining about bullshit problems, I took a break to eat some dinner and watch Meryl Streep accept the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Golden Globes. It’s a riveting, heartfelt performance of hurt and despair at what might be the highlight moment of her career, and I really recommend a watch, if you’ve not seen it. Here it is:

Meryl reminded her audiences of a few important things in this speech. First, that Hollywood actors, and the Hollywood foreign press – despite being two of the most outrageously privileged groups on earth – are also currently among the most “vilified segments” in America (“Hollywood. Foreigners. And the press”). Why? Because it is their job, actors and journalists alike, to inhabit difference, call out falsehood, and speak truth to power – even when it places them at risk. She reminded everyone listening in the auditorium of the weight of responsibility their privilege brings, the responsibility to model empathy and compassion, and to refuse to stand for bullying, belittling, humiliating acts perpetrated by those with power. When we are secure, are em-placed, we speak from a built-in podium; let’s speak loudly, and clearly.

But let’s not underestimate our own vulnerability, either; that’s a lie that not only does our own selves a disservice, but also reduces the potential for ally-ship with others. And this is where those of us in secure academic jobs should learn from Meryl’s words: to be conscious of, and grateful for, our own freedom and mobility, but not to take it for granted, and never, ever to assume its normativity. It’s likely that more than a few of our colleagues, even just down the hall, are feeling more precarious than we know; if we overstate and universalise the privileges of this fortunate job, we risk erasing the details of struggles barely recognised.

There are lots of ways that tenured faculty can be allies with contract faculty, graduate students, and others in the university precariat, and we should embrace them all. But we must also be each other’s allies, and make space to talk honestly about that all-too-common feeling of entrapment that lurks around us. How might we alleviate it? I bet there are dozens of ideas waiting to be hatched, if we’d just take this problem seriously as shared, personal, and an impediment to our collective strength as teachers, scholars, and community leaders.

Job shares? Advocating for better regional transit on behalf of university populations? Proactive planning for commuting profs, including on-campus housing, centralised carpooling, air or rail discounts? New models for spousal hiring and support? These are off the top of my head, but I bet there are more, and better, examples floating around. I’d love to hear about them – please share!

Kim

 

 

 

On teaching in the wake of the 2016 US Presidential Election

I am a Canadian; that means I live my life in solidarity with the human beings living, working, and fighting for social justice across the Americas, from the tip of Patagonia to the top of the arctic. Many of these individuals come from historically oppressed populations; many live still within populations fighting daily oppression, racism, sexism, and deep prejudice based on wealth and class.

The election of Mr Trump on Tuesday evening in the United States tore a very deep gash in my heart. It provided, like Brexit in the United Kingdom in June, an open invitation for those who hate and who fear minority populations to get down to the business of unrestrained anger and violence against them. I felt numb most of yesterday, and had a hard time reading the news. I still have not listened to any of the speeches made in the wake of the result. As with the debates, when I turned toward the video I felt a surge of nausea in my core. I had to look away.

It’s a really good thing I did not have to teach yesterday, then.

In the meantime, however, a number of my friends and colleagues in the US and beyond got down to the business of responding to the result, and of figuring out how to talk to our students in the wake of the election and its emotional fallout. I am enormously grateful to them for doing work I simply could not face yesterday.

We are teachers; we are the keepers of safe classroom spaces where respectful disagreement and debate happen. We are the guides who help to shape strong, thoughtful citizens. We are the ones who must now step forward, to provide the ideas, the tone, the strategies for critical thinking that were so lacking over the course of this election, and which will be the only way back to a shared centre ground in the years to come.

There is an awful lot, fellow teachers, for us to do in the months ahead.

Because we are teachers, with incredible social and intellectual privilege, it is our ethical duty not to get up in front of our students and declare our political allegiances as though those allegiances are the norm or the “correct” path forward. But it is also our obligation to share our all-too-human experiences of sorrow and anger with our students, and thus to make space for our students to share theirs in turn.

It is also our obligation and our ethical responsibility to speak out, everywhere, against hate.

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How can we do this in ways that respect our classroom differences, make way for difference to be discussed honestly and respectfully among the young people in our care, and yet also acknowledge the raw rage and terror many of us are feeling? It’s a very hard task indeed.

To go some way toward a reply to this question, I’d like to share some writing that came across my Facebook feed yesterday morning. It is a letter to her students written by NYU instructor and graduate student Christina Squitieri, and it is reproduced here with her kind permission.

I know what most of you are feeling right now. You’re scared, you’re angry, you’re anxious, you’re confused, you feel betrayed, lied to, devalued, denied your legitimacy and your personhood. Some of you may be rejoicing about your candidate, but others, I’m sure, are angry and afraid of what this means for them, for their friends, for their families.

I know, because that’s what I’m feeling right now. Ignorance breeds fear, fear breeds anger, and anger breeds hate. America is angry and scared and filled with hate right now, and the push of anti-intellectualism has helped, if not ushered in, the rise of Donald Trump. People who have never seen a Muslim, or Mexican, or person of color, are scared that they are taking away their rights; people who feel like they are losing their power over everything – they have lost jobs, they can’t make ends meet, their vision of the American Dream or the way their fathers were “king of their castle” and had supreme authority over their wives and children is rapidly disappearing, if not entirely gone. They are scared and angry, and hate the people who they feel like took their power away from them.

They see, in Donald Trump, an image of their American Dream, that it can still happen. That a repulsive man can be fantastically wealthy and have beautiful women fawn all over him, can have mistresses and wives, and can show that man can still dominate, just as men always have. And he is telling them that people they do not deem as rightfully Americans are the only one standing in their way of achieving that dream. It’s fucked up and desperate, and more than anything, it is not sustainable. Nationalist policies never last long, because the people who come together – the people who the leader said were not worthy of being people – always triumph when they show love and respect for one another. It takes time, but I promise.

But I’m here to tell you that, in spite of how this election played out, education works. The community we build while in college fosters individual growth, fosters community, fosters mutual understanding and respect. Every day, when you go to class, and you are challenged to think beyond what you know or expect, you are becoming wiser and more compassionate individuals. Every conversation or debate you have with a classmate, you challenge yourselves to think better, to be open-minded, not to just hear but to listen to another side.

In our class on Fridays, I watch as you build on each other’s comments, how you agree and respectfully disagree, how you stop yourselves and say, well, I never thought of it that way. How you learn and respect each other, and how you grow as better thinkers, better writers, better critics, and better people.

This election has been about dividing us, pitting us against one another, and refusing to listen to the other side. As we move forward, I encourage you all to listen, to respect, to try to understand. You’re smart, and empowered, and made more compassionate by your education, by our in-class discussions, by the writing you do and by the listening you do. You learn to be empathetic and understanding, to support your ideas with facts (and textual evidence!), and to listen to the other side. Time and time again, this works. It may not feel that way right now, but it does.

Learn more, read more, speak out more, listen more. And go out into this world with that same respect, empathy, and compassion. It will be difficult, more difficult that debating what Mary Wroth’s sonnets mean, but it’s so important. Now is not the time to riot in the streets, but to respect the democratic process, and to learn where our assumptions lie and how we can begin to dismantle them. I promise to challenge myself to do the same.

This election does not mean we can stop speaking out against hate speech. It does not mean that we can be lazy and allow the nationalist, anti-Muslim, anti-LGBTQ+, anti-Mexican, anti-black, anti-woman, anti-immigrant, anti-disabled, anti-everyone-who-isn’t-white,-male,-Protestant-and-heterosexual language to continue. We need to fight it, we need to speak out against it, but we need to do that respectfully, with each other. Not on Facebook, not on Twitter, not on social media. We need to speak with each other – face-to-face – and listen. Without a doubt, misogyny ran this election. We need to think about how we talk about women and what we take for granted, just like we need to think about how we talk about Muslims, members of the LGBTQ+ community, immigrants, African-Americans, people with disabilities, non-Christians.

I can assure you, while Trump’s rhetoric is disgusting and hateful, not everyone in America voted for that hate. Some did, yes, but others did not. Some want change. An economy that they don’t understand but think a change will work. A future for themselves and for their children that they don’t see happening under “more of the same.”

From a political science perspective, after eight years of one party, the party of the president always switches. We need to have faith that our three branches of government will work, and that some of the most racist and xenophobic policies won’t pass the House and Senate. We need to have faith that our system of checks and balances will prevail. America has weathered some terrible storms, but we have always gotten through them. I have faith that we can get through this one, as well.

Christina finishes her letter by encouraging her students to visit the Wellness Exchange Centre on their campus, and I’ll end here by suggesting we all do the same: remind students they are not alone, however they are feeling, and direct them toward the resources on our campuses that can provide immediate support. We must also not feel embarrassed to seek them out ourselves.

In solidarity with you all, and with thanks once more to Christina for sharing her thoughts,

Kim

 

Why did the bus driver pull over on the side of the highway?… and other tales from our field trip to Toronto’s Nuit Blanche 2016

“To be honest, I have no idea where I am right now…”

I knew we were in trouble when the bus driver (SCHOOL bus driver… it was “reunion” weekend at Western, which I reasoned explained why there was not a motor coach to be had within 50km for the night of 1 October) turned off the freeway leading into downtown Toronto and onto the suburban highway that goes North. I had clocked the traffic jam warning on the LED sign we’d just passed; I let myself imagine he’d made a snap decision to go up and around the snarl. Smart.

But no. As it turned out, his GPS had taken him off course. And since he hadn’t been to Toronto in, oh, 25 years… well, here we were astride the 401, North America’s most congested highway, and the bus driver was a puddle.

So began the excursion I led to Nuit Blanche, Toronto’s all-night art “thing”, a couple of weeks ago. NB, for those not familiar, is an art and culture over-nighter that officially started in Paris in 2002 (although it traces its routes to Nantes, a small French city, and back to 1984); the idea is to set citizens free in the city from sundown to sunup, and to turn otherwise uninviting (or frightening) urban spaces into welcoming hubs of creation in order to entice their visits. Toronto has had a Nuit Blanche since 2005; I’ve been following it closely since 2008, when my friend and colleague Laura Levin and I went in search of zombies… and discovered instead the festival’s intrinsic ties to the rhetoric of urban creativity then sweeping North America – the one pushing former manufacturing centres to convert to zones of hipster gentrification OR DIE TRYING.

BUT. It was still a lot of fun!

I’ve taken students to NB in Toronto before, and we’ve had a wonderful, illuminating time (click here for more). But this year I had a record number: 20 undergraduates in my performance studies class, plus 10 grad students studying the vicissitudes of art-making in the global city. Together, we made a bus load’s full – and at $30 a head return (downtown Toronto is 100 miles/200km from our university) a full bus was all I needed to break even. So I doubled us up and booked the big yellow submarine (though I won’t be doing THAT part again…). And then I thought:

How do I wrangle 30 student cats??!!

Herewith, the story of the strategy.

(All photos by Camille Intson)

To start, I decided on the buddy system. Twenty undergrads, mostly sensible, mostly engaged with the idea of performance as a public good, mostly sensible. (Did I mention sensible?!?) Plus 10 grad students, eager to demonstrate No Longer Undergrad Status (NLUS), and sensible in every way necessary. Partnering up seemed a win: give a couple of grads to a quadrille of undergrads and voila – nobody gets lost, nobody dies.

And on the whole it worked! With one exception (the bunch of ’em are still arguing over who ditched whom… though my sense is nobody is holding a grudge), the groups hung together and helped one another to find a pathway through the event, discovering food, coffee, and some firm ideas about what, exactly, this event DOES for both the city and its citizens along the way. Everyone turned up at the rendezvous on time at 1am, and in general they seemed sated, if exhausted. WIN, WIN.

Next, I minimised the prep. Last time out, we spent a class (me + the undergrads) planning the trip. That made sense in context: we were 8 total, and we all hung together (mostly) as a result. What to see? Everyone got to choose something to hit over the course of the night, and we charted a route together.

This time, given the ad-hoc groupings, I decided to let the students work it out for themselves: I gave them the event URL and encouraged some light research. I also imagined spontaneity would be a boon. Why overplan when, really, the point is fun?

Ten years on, Nuit Blanche TO is quite commercial, a bit underwhelming, and largely an exercise in thinking about who the city is for, and who benefits from a “carnival” atmosphere. Better just to go full carnival and think about it later…

Finally, I figured out my part in it. This took me a while. Which group would I join? It seemed nonsense to be with only one (and patently unfair). But obviously moving through the event alone was silly too: the point was not for me to “do” Nuit Blanche (mostly, they’re all the same…), but to watch the students do it for the first time, experience the excitement of the big gets, and feel the let-downs of the pieces that promised the moon prematurely.

I cracked it only the morning of, in fact: I’d circulate, just as I did in class during group exercises, but with a bit more (physical) space between the groups. I duly made sure all the grad students had my mobile number and vice versa, and then we made a plan to text each other coordinates at various points in the night. I’d text something like, “I’m at X, where are you?” and according to responses I’d plot a route to the next group. I worked out that I could spend roughly an hour with each bunch, excluding commuting time, and that turned out to be perfect; at the end of the night I even had 45 minutes to spare (which I used to grab hot cocoa from Dark Horse’s pop-up in 401 Richmond, and then hit the Spacing Store for a Halloween present for a good friend’s twins).

The bus driver was, no word of a lie, SERIOUSLY freaked out by the Nuit Blanche traffic, even well after midnight, but planning ahead meant we boarded by 1:30am, and I was home at 4am. Sure, the white-nighter (hello, past self!) fucked me up a bit…

 

But it was worth it.

Sleep well!

Kim

2015-16 in review, pt 1: on mental wellness

It’s mid-April, and that means I’m a week and a handful out of the classroom. I’m feeling ok, but not exactly great (let alone euphoric): it’s been one hell of a year. And though prep and term marking are now over, dealing with struggling students and coping with them writing their finals is not.

Also not over: the edited collection of essays I’m due to deliver in 15 days; the conference I’m co-chairing that takes place end of May; and the admin related to the degree program I help to run, which is ramping up again in time for student course selection in June.

In other words: I’m still pretty unbearably busy.

And I’m emotionally as drained as can be.

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That’s why this year’s reflections on the year just past – for last year’s reflections, start here – need to begin with a post on mind-body wellness. Quite apart from the fact that I have honestly had a year from hell, and thus all reflection on it is coloured by struggle, this is also the time of year when many of us both rejoice in the end of classes and face one of the toughest mental tests of the term: the exam period.

During the exam period students come face to face with what they have, and have not, done to accomplish their goals during the academic year. They freak out; they stay up all night studying (or not); they beg for mercy in emails and in office hours. Simultaneously, faculty members struggle to cope with the onslaught of marking and end-of-year admin (aka meetings galore), as well as the sinking feeling that our lives are no longer structured by (and our lack of research output no longer excused by!) the courses that we teach, which by default shape our working lives from September through March. Plus, of course, students’ stress leaks out all over us, as we do our best to support them through their end-of-year challenges both administrative and emotional.

Put it all together, and you have a crucible of volatile emotions flying across campus – and a hell of a lot of work to do just managing them.

This exam period was preceded, for me, by a flurry of interest in the matter of mental health on campus. This may have been a coincidence, but somehow I doubt it. First, I received a number of emails from University Affairs, a Canadian academic-industry magazine, showcasing a mix of articles on the topic (and including compelling pieces from students on how teachers can help, here; and from the perspective of graduate students, from the always-perceptive Melonie Fullick here). Then, one of my students organised a long table, as part of her final project for my performance studies class, focused on student mental health and what our university can do better to support struggling students. Finally, one of my colleagues circulated information about a terrific new book on wellness for university faculty, The Slow Professor (which I immediately ordered up from the publisher. For your own copy, click here).

We’re getting worked up these days about mental health on campus for good reason: it’s a challenge that has been building since we began to conceive of universities as job-training and job-creation hubs, rather than as the sites of scattered, accidental, incredible intellectual imagination and discovery that they have long, long been. This isn’t the place to rehearse the false consciousness that tries to claim for universities the role of job-prep robot; instead, I want to point specifically to the kinds of emotional breakdown that often follow from this flawed logic – for students, but also for profs and support staff.

Our students feel, increasingly, as though their educations are meant to land them not just jobs but careers. And many of them are only 18, 19 years old! The pressure this need generates for the young people in our charge is overwhelming, and all the while many of them lack the skill sets to cope with it. The result of this pressure, plus this lack, can often be collapse of a significant magnitude: as I learned from some of the students who attended the long table organised by my student Rebecca King, plenty of them are using alcohol as a coping mechanism more than they should do, and plenty are (of course) using a mix of other drugs to numb the anxiety and fear of failure. All of them know someone struggling with mental health issues, and many of them struggle themselves.

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Sitting at the long table Rebecca organised, this information resonated with me, but not just because I care about my students and how they are faring. It resonated in large part because I saw myself in the conversation, too: as a front-line student support worker (all teachers are!), the emotional labour of supporting increasingly anxious, depressed, self- or doctor-medicated students has become one of the hardest, and most constant, parts of my job. This is anecdotal evidence, to be sure, but it seems to me the numbers of these students moving through my office is increasing every year (certainly I have statistical evidence from my own classes that more and more students are not handing work in at all). And as the emotion-management part of my job increases, my own emotional wellbeing becomes increasingly fragile.

We make a lot of noise now, for very good reason, about student mental wellness at university, but we still do not talk nearly enough about faculty and staff mental health. Profs are the authority figures and the power-brokers on campus, and so our struggles to cope with anxiety, depression, and related issues can often go unseen. But many of us are medicated, and many of us are struggling every bit as much as our students. I know very few colleagues not taking prescription drugs just to cope. And I don’t believe that’s because high-functioning troubled folks self-select into the academy; I believe the academy does to us as good as we can get, and then some.

Student mental health is rightly near the top of our radar; after all, the young people we teach don’t have the same experience managing complicated working lives as we do, and for many the culture shock of entering the university system, with its neoliberal focus on individual responsibility and bootstrap-pulling, can be overwhelming after a childhood of helicopter parenting. But truth be told, the unwatched movie of campus life is the one that reveals the number of faculty drinking too much wine each night, needing Ativan or Zopiclone just to sleep, and crying in their offices before and after class – trying their hardest, of course, to show none of this to their students.

Universities across Canada (and far beyond) have long since taken steps to support both students and faculty (as well as non-academic staff) who struggle with mental health issues; if Rebecca’s long table provides any evidence, however, those steps are often (perceived as) inadequate. Students are promised support, but the wait for genuine counselling is long. Students need accommodation for mental health issues, but doctors’ notes are expensive, and can be harder to acquire for problems without physical symptoms. Meanwhile, faculty (like many students) often suffer in silence, whispering quietly to one another what they take, or how much they drink, or both. It’s all shameful, until we share the story, and realise we’re not alone.

Sure there are supports on campus for faculty too, and I know from personal experience who in my department I can go to if things get really bad for me. I’m fortunate to have a chair with tonnes of sympathetic HR experience who knows how to advocate for staff, and I have a handful of colleagues I count as family who are there for me. But I also know that sharing mental health issues openly, especially for women faculty who still battle gendered perceptions about being “too emotional”, can be incredibly difficult, and even genuinely risky. A lot is at stake in opening up.

By strange and perfect coincidence (OK, once again, prob not actually a coincidence), the day after I wrote this post I had dinner with close friends who work at nearby universities, and we spent a large part of our shared meal talking about our shared struggle with labour overload, work boundaries, and the mental health fallout from it all. We were brutally honest together because we could be – but we also reminded one another that such honesty can’t always obtain at work. Because even though we’ve become better and better at talking with and to students about their challenges, and increasingly students are accommodated for their mental health problems (as it should be), it’s still pretty rare for faculty to share their issues and experiences with one another, or with those (chairs and deans) who can – and should – support and accommodate us.

I have, for a while now, made a point of sharing with my students my own struggles with mental wellness: my mom’s dementia, as well as the fact that I take doctor-prescribed meds in order to remain functional. And I encourage students to visit me in office hours if they have anything related to mental wellness they want to talk about. But that, I know, is a privilege: I’m still high functioning and productive, my students respect me, and my boss both supports me and knows he can rely on me. So my risk, in talking mental health matters, is minimal. In fact, the people I’d really like to hear from, and share health and wellness stories with, are my colleagues. That conversation feels urgent, yet also unlikely.

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I’m thinking of taking a page out of Rebecca’s book and organising a faculty mental health long table in September on my campus. And I’m going to create another post about women’s particular struggles with this stuff, because my chat with my friends reminded me how much more there is to say on that score.

Meanwhile, though, I would love to hear others’ experiences and perspectives on this one: what supports on your campus exist to help faculty struggling with emotion management and mental health and wellness? Do you feel you can share your stories openly? Where and with whom?

Sending good vibes out to y’all,

Kim