End of Fall 2020 Roundtable with Amber Fatima Riaz

Well folks, it appears we have made it to end of 2020. WHEW!

We’re closing out the Fall semester with a roundtable conversation featuring Kim, Kelsey, and Amber Fatima Riaz. One of Kim’s former PhD students, Amber is a professional academic editor who works across scholarly genres, from conference papers and manuscripts to journal articles. She has also been a postsecondary instructor at a range of institutions, from universities to public and private colleges. During this past fateful March, she was working as an administrator at a private college in British Columbia.

In our chat, the three of us reflect on this strange year, and what we’ve learned about college and university teaching as a result of the pandemic. The short version of our reflections: systemic thinking and structural change required! For the longer version, read on …

Dr, Amber Fatima Riaz

KS: Amber, where were you teaching when COVID-19 first hit?

AFR: I was working as a campus education manager at a private college [with a largely adult student base]. What they did was try to utilize pre-existing curriculum and translate it for the new teaching medium (synchronous video conferencing). They kind of marketed it like, “We are going to continue teaching as if nothing has happened. You [the students] will just be at home, using technology to see and hear your instructor.” We were lucky in a way, because, right when the pandemic hit, we were on March break. So, we had a full week of training on the video conferencing platform and we were able to push the technology to instructors who did not have access to computers, webcams, headsets etc. We quickly took down the student computer lab, ordered new headsets and webcams, and set up our instructors for a teach-from-home setup.

What fell apart was accessibility for students. The assumption was that the students would have their own laptops or desktops. But our demographic is adult learners or people launching a second career, looking for jobs and careers as soon as they completed their certifications and diplomas with us. We were looking at parents with kids learning from home, you know, or people who had never touched a computer before, who suddenly had to learn all of this stuff about technology while also continuing with the courses, as if the pandemic hadn’t hit. At the administrative level, behind-the-scenes saw a lot of upheaval. A lot of the teaching time went towards providing tech support along the lines of “how to access emails” or “how to upload a document” —that sort of thing. During the monthly “Strategies for Student Success” course that I was teaching, my classes quickly switched to tech support and troubleshooting, because a lot of the students were trying to manage the online classes on a smartphone. They had to access exams, textbooks, quizzes, everything on just a smartphone. It created major problems for the students. Instructors meanwhile were facing issues of how to maintain academic integrity. I’m also seeing a lot of university students who started in the Fall having to make bigger investments in tech, which wasn’t necessarily something that they had budgeted for.

Budgeting for school in Fall 2020 was a whole new activity.

KB: Challenges with technology are something I’ve seen a lot of too. Just a couple of weeks ago, I did this really great activity that involved an online board game. It combined a lesson on representation in video games, with essay writing, and the board game itself. And it worked beautifully. Except that the toggling between different kinds of screen sharing — which required functional wifi and a decent computer — meant that it was technologically inaccessible for some students.  And so it was frustrating because pedagogically it actually worked. But, it wasn’t as accessible as it could have been in terms of technology.

AFR: At the college level, I found that the tech—the use of computers to deliver curriculum with videos turned on—is what created issues of accessibility and also opened up new pedagogical challenges. While videoconferencing looks like an equalizer with students and teachers all in the same virtual space, it created a space where teachers defaulted to instructor-centered teaching models, because we lost the ability to foster peer-to-peer learning and help students engage in group work.

KS: I tried to mitigate the technical problems to some extent in the hybrid model that I developed for my class this semester. But what the hybrid model has revealed to me about virtual pedagogies has been really interesting.

I was teaching in an active learning space. So it’s got lots of pods and every pod has a projector, a smart white board, and a central computer that can do a bunch of things. So it’s ideal for distance learning as two students sit at a good space apart from each other at the same table, while others are on Zoom on big screens. I gave the students the option to come in live in person, or to be on Zoom, and to switch each week or stay in one or another mode, whatever suits. There are very sensitive microphones in the ceiling of the room and they can pick up ambient sound from anywhere so students don’t have to speak too loudly, which is great. But I’ve realized that because the camera is centrally positioned, it doesn’t really give a good view of anybody except me when I’m staring straight into it, and that’s only part of the time, when I remember to! The camera also has the weird effect for the students on Zoom of recentering me as the person in charge — even though the whole setup of the room is designed to decenter me, to create the spatial reality of a flipped classroom.

This made me think of how funny it is that the most de-centered, the most student-oriented, pedagogical methods are actually the most complicated to render virtually. It requires a huge amount of instructor dexterity. It requires TA Support. It requires tech support we’re not being given. So, virtual and hybrid models have actually reinforced the “sage on the stage” teaching methods of old that we all agree have limited use.

A return to past “sage-centred” models of teaching?

AFR: It’s almost the default setting! At our institution, I tried to decenter the teacher by encouraging the instructors to predetermine breakout groups ahead of time, then make room during the class for each group to exchange contact information—be it Facetime, WhatsApp, Facebook messenger, whatever the group wanted. Then, the groups got to decide how they wanted to communicate. That helped remove the instructor from the group activity entirely. It allowed the instructor to simply monitor the fact that the groups were happening. And it allowed the students to meet on their own time. It worked beautifully because the groups got to decide how and when they were going to meet. The setup helped address the issue of accessibility, and decentered the instructor, but the onus was on setting up the activity properly in advance. Parents of young kids could look at the chat at 9:00 pm, that kind of thing, and the students reacted favourably to the setup, and to the freedom they were afforded.

KB: That’s fascinating. I tried to do that a bit too but got a different result. For example, I shortened class time with the explicit purpose that students could complete “homework” during that time but not be stuck on the Zoom while they do it. But, in the midterm feedback, students overwhelmingly reported being overwhelmed by the flexibility. Not just in my class, but across classes. So, I had to switch away from it. And something the students didn’t report but I think is implied is that they don’t quite have the time management skills yet for more flexible learning structures.

Teaching and learning in 2020, in one handy meme.

KS:  I’ve also had the same feedback, Kelsey. Students are getting lots and lots of extra work, or what they perceive to be extra work. I’ve tried to remind them: the thing is that it’s actually not extra. It’s just that you’re having to do more than you would if you were sitting in a class lecture half-listening. You’re having to be more active in preparing for class, and you have to take more responsibility for your own learning.

I don’t think there’s enough of a meta-conversation happening around that. It also reminds me that what we really need to do at university is to invite students to learn time management in a class about time management. We actually have one of those courses at Western (a class that reflects in a meta-critical way on the history and culture of university), which is very cool. But, it’s an elective. I wonder what it would mean to reconfigure first-year university around classes just like that? So students could be doing classes about learning styles and learning practices. Doing classes about time management, doing classes about accessing and utilizing resources, alongside other things, of course. But doing courses for credit that require you to actually actively investigate the reasons that you’re there, what you do and don’t know about taking care of yourself as a learner and a citizen.

In my classes I always try to create robust scaffolds so students don’t have to just encounter the meta stuff and then deal with it, but they can actually learn through it. I think that would be incredibly powerful if it could be facilitated more broadly in the early years of university.

Ideally, time management means not running away from clocks.

KB: I think one of the things implicit in all of the arguments regarding teaching in COVID-19 is that 18 to 25-year old students often don’t attend university for the education. Or at least not the education alone. They attend for the social aspect. They attend to experience the transition to being an adult. They attend to get a piece of paper they believe they need to get work in the future, have an adult life. So it makes sense that university gets incredibly hard when several of the reasons students are actually there get taken away.

AFR: We also need to be thinking about the demographies here. Because, if you look at the private college sector – where students are often immigrants, or people who are already in the workforce, or parents – it’s totally different. For these students, a useful education matters. They want their money’s worth. The classroom structure and course delivery structures are different. They’ll put in the time and effort, but only if it means they’ll get a good job at the end.

KB: So perhaps this is about openly acknowledging the different needs of a range students. It’s saying that learning information is one of the things that’s happening at university. But it’s not the only thing.

KS:  I often tell my students, the truth is, I remember very little of what I actually learned in my bachelor’s degree. I remember formative learning moments that were facilitated by excellent teachers using excellent tools. I remember all of the parallel learning experiences. I remember the honors English lounge on the third floor of the Humanities building at the University of Alberta. I remember the grounds. I remember being with friends. I remember discovering myself, but I don’t actually remember the core stuff.

AFR: And that’s so key. I think what I’ve admired a lot about the elementary and high school teachers right now with the pivot that they have had to do is that they understood that the contents of what they’re teaching right now doesn’t matter, right? None of them are focusing on the overall content, or the guidelines that say they have to complete X, Y, and Z by the end of the month. Each teacher is focusing on life skills, study skills, resilience, building up grit. This is going to be the “lost year.” At the university and college level, though, the focus seems to be so much more on the content, that we’re losing the larger connections and relationships.

KS: I think that speaks to the bigger meta of our conversation, which is that so many of the gatekeeping mechanisms at universities are driven by assumptions that we’re learning now are not true. Students don’t come to university just to learn stuff. Most students are actually not that tech savvy. They don’t have gadgets with all the bells and whistles. They don’t have the default study skills you might expect if you’re invested in the notion that your university only accepts the best minds, whatever that means. In fact, students are mostly young adults trying to figure themselves out. And for them, the experience of university is an embodied liminal journey from childhood to adulthood. And if that’s the case, we need to invest so much more time and energy into supporting tech access, creating a wide range of different learning experiences, and operating as a default with compassion, rather than worrying about just porting content online.


Amber Riaz Bio: Amber Riaz is a professional academic editor, and has edited academic manuscripts, journal articles and conference papers, working with academic presses as well as individual authors. Since earning her doctorate in English Literature, she has worked as a sessional instructor at both public universities and colleges in London, Ontario, and public colleges and private colleges in Vancouver, BC. Most recently, she worked as the Campus Education Manager at Sprott Shaw College’s Surrey campus in British Columbia, Canada, before being laid-off due to COVID-19 in Sept 2020. She has taught Academic Writing, Literature, and General Education courses, in addition to offering student support services and administrative and pedagogical support to the instructors teaching various courses at Sprott Shaw. She has presented conference papers on the representation of mothers in film, interstitiality in contemporary South Asian literature and on stereotypes of Muslims in various film industries. She has also published essays on the Partition of India, on the representation of the “burqa” in Pakistani novels, and on the mohajir identity in Pakistani novels. Her research interests include Postcolonial studies, Feminist literary theory and South Asian Studies, as well as the intersections of diaspora, religion, and migration in South Asian Literature in English.

To find out more about Amber, see:

How to ‘Online Student’… From an Online Student!

Friends, are you in your Zoom box, staring at the Hollywood Squares of Students, wondering how it’s all going? Are you on the verge of panic as you push your ramblings through the keyhole of the Tardis, wondering WTF is landing? FEAR NOT!

This week, dispatches from the world through the screen: Kelsey and I are thrilled to feature the reflections (complete with awesome links to even MORE awesome reflections) of an actual, retail online student, the brilliant Akshi Chadha. Enjoy!

Akshi Chadha, our guest blogger.

Every summer, I decide I’m going to change my life. Summer is the perfect time—I have a long break from university. I am at home surrounded by my family. And, I have no expectations of myself except to, well, get my life together. The plans for summer 2020 were pretty straightforward: return home to India, catch up on months of sleep, start thinking about grad school applications, start working on my thesis, and eat nothing but Indian food.

I can positively tell you: none of these things happened.

The pandemic struck and suddenly I was stranded in London, Ontario, Canada, spiraling—contemplating my own mortality and worrying about my family. Things got to a point where I just wanted to get a flight out (which I never did), abandon everything, and never return, especially not to school. Why should I continue to be some oblivious student—an online one at that—when the world around me is on fire?

Because I’m anything but oblivious as a student.

I know I’m not the only one who’s been asking themselves if their education still matters. The pandemic has brought on a sense of futility by stripping us all of access, support, resources, connections, and space—all the things that facilitate our education. Managing work, family, and school from the confines of our personal space might make one question if being a student is really worth the extra effort that it is going to take. However, I’ve come to realize that even on the bad days, learning is a priority for me as it empowers me like nothing else. It equips me to be able to think about all that plagues the world, and how I’ve been a part of the problem, and how I can start becoming a part of the solution. It equips me to able to think. I am lucky enough to be pursuing something I actually love, learning from people I actually admire. And in a world shrouded in obscurity, such clarity about something is welcomed.

So yes, learning still matters to me. But online learning is daunting territory. For most of us, online learning has an ominous ring to it that makes us instinctively resistant. Yes, I want to be on campus, among my peers and professors. After all, it’s what I’m paying for. But I also want myself and everyone else to be physically safe and right now that notion supersedes everything else.


How I look (and feel) trying to figure out what is going on in my online classes.

With these priorities in mind, I’m trying to view online learning as a way to learn and connect with my peers and professors in a time when our safety depends on distance. Remote learning is inconvenient, however, it can become meaningful and effective if we try to view it as a solution to learning in a pandemic rather than an infliction.

So here I am: trying to keep track of a million Zoom invites, trying to actively engage with whatever is in front of me (a screen? a book? a baking sheet?), and trying to take charge of my learning in a way I didn’t have to before. Simply trying. And with this relatively optimistic outlook, I started an online blog series for my peers in the faculty of Arts and Humanities at Western University, called ‘How to ‘Online Student’’, hoping to extend support and understanding to students like me who have no idea ‘how to’ but ‘want to’ make this work nonetheless.

I am not trying to paint a delusional, merry picture here—online learning is problematic in many ways. But only when we acknowledge the slowness, the frustration, the inaccessibility, the inconsistencies, and the isolation, can we begin to find a way around it. Hence: the blog. The ‘How to ‘Online Student’’ series features suggestions for navigating specific areas of online learning such as motivation, netiquette, Zoom, online resources, and community-building.

While the inspiration for the blog came from a need to combat my own uncertainty and anxiety, I was also moved by various stories on the internet about students trying to learn despite inadequate resources and instructors trying to teach despite inadequate technological training. The series is thus an effort towards solidarity, a hand extended for support, and a commitment towards creating the classroom together in the midst of a pandemic. With each post, I am looking to work out certain questions:

  • How can we optimize online learning techniques and environments?
  • How can we support (and I mean really support) each other?
  • How can we reciprocate the efforts of our professors and create the classroom in conjunction with them?

I don’t have the perfect answers to any of these questions, but I’m hoping the blog is a starting point for something. Anything. My hope with creating the series is that we recognize that ‘pandemic student-ing’ means we have to replace our usual goals with pandemic goals: mindfulness, self-compassion, self-awareness, responsibility, finding value in learning, and maintaining connections in the face of debilitating isolation. If there’s one thing I wish everyone would take away from the blog series, it would be that we should remember to be human—in every good sense of the word—in these perpetually digital times.

And that we should remember to breathe while doing all this superhero stuff!

About our guest author:

I am a fourth-year student pursuing an Honors Specialization in English and Creative Writing at Western University. I write things—some of them have been published or are forthcoming in Watch Your HeadThe Roadrunner ReviewSymposium, and SNAPS, Salve, and The Forest City Poetry Anthology. As a writer, I’m interested in the immense potential of the written word in helping make the world a little bit better so that is what I’m always striving to work towards. You can find me at www.akshichadha.com!

Virtual pedagogy: lessons from the world of sport

Today on the AC we are proud to share reflections by Cate Creede, a Toronto-based social scientist and core contributor at Fit is a Feminist Issue. Cate and Kim sweat it out together many mornings over Zoom, with a fantastic trainer and coach called Alex whom Cate works with IRL.

Below, Cate synthesizes the valuable, transferable lessons about student-centred online teaching that Alex models every day. For the AC team (Kim and Kelsey), these thoughts resonate deeply as we think about planning summer and fall classes online, and as we try to figure out how to empower and hold space for the young people in our lives in an inclusive, access-forward, feminist way.




Guest Author, Cate Creede

Like everyone else in the world, my life is suddenly filtered through a screen, including my work as a strategy facilitator, leadership and life coach and educator.  And like everyone who’s had to translate relational practice to a mediated environment, I’ve found it challenging – and a site of constant learning for myself.

One of my most fruitful sources about learning how to be a good online teacher and facilitator is my experience as a learner with my fitness coach.  Since the lockdown began, I’ve been working out almost every day with Alex Boross-Harmer, who was my real life coach and trainer in the Before Times.  She’s figured out how to translate her already-excellent teaching to an online environment – and in doing so, has reminded me again what good teaching is, both in one-on-one environments and in her classes.


Cate, with her trainer Alex Boross-Harmer, in the background

A few months ago, I was trying to figure out why Alex is such a powerful presence, compared to so many other teachers and coaches I’ve had in my life. With other coaches in small group fitness classes, I often find myself feeling inept, or like I can’t quite get the form right, or I’m hopelessly clumsy. It’s hard to articulate, but with many other coaches, even when they do and say all the “right” things, I can feel held back in a way. It’s not something specific like being adjusted, or told I should stay at a lower weight to focus on form, or lack of encouragement. Other coaches can do all those things “right,” and it’s fine … I can get a good workout, have a fun class. But what Alex does makes me feel simultaneously supported, challenged, encouraged, and stronger than I’ve ever felt in my life.

As I’ve been a learner in her virtual space during the pandemic, I’ve identified a few of the specific things she does that generate this empowerment for me.

  • She creates safety by modeling vulnerability and authenticity herself;
  • She uses whatever technology is available (in person or virtual) to create a playful environment that is conducive to exploring;
  • She intuitively identifies our individual “zones of proximal development” (Vygotsky) and encourages us to work in those edges;
  • She demonstrates her extensive knowledge through practical application (she was in grad school for kinesiology before she turned to coaching);
  • She designs and leads classes based on our needs, not her agenda.

What does this actually look like in practice?

A few months ago, Alex told me that her aspiration as a coach was to make a space so her clients feel that the hour spent working out is their best hour in the day. The most critical way she does this is by modeling vulnerability and authenticity. 

She does this by checking in about where we are before class starts – sometimes just with a thumbs up/side/down.  She has an honest, infectious, joyful energy – but she always makes it okay to dial back, be sad or anxious, or be tired.  She assumes we have no equipment, and makes that okay – our bodies and a mat are enough.


Cate, doing a handstand.

She talks about being grateful to be in the space with us, and acknowledges how it improves her own mood.  She calls us a team, not a class, and then she does the workouts with us. She looks like a super fit person – and yet openly acknowledges being sweaty or out of breath.

Over the week, our daily “superhero virtual workouts” have a shape: mobility, strength, ramping up, rest, mobility, strength, etc.  Every workout has a shape too – mobility, strength, conditioning, stretching – with many options within it. She pays attention to what each of us is doing, watching us closely through the screen, offering modifications, reinforcing form, and encouraging.

As she does the workouts with us, she is honest about where she is tired, where her body is tight or painful, where she needs to cut back on reps or go for the lighter option. Her authenticity (in her genuine, spontaneous reactions and affect) models for us how we can find our own path, trust that we know our own bodies, and it ensures that we have permission to adjust and slow down.

Together, this creates trust and confidence: she holds the space and for us so that we can safely push our own edges.

Which is the second major thing she does:  she creates a playful environment that is conducive to exploring.


Cate’s trusty workout companions, excelling at active rest between sets.

When I first met Alex as a teacher, hers was the first class I ever felt inspired to dance in – just because her joy at being in the gym is infectious. (Note: I am not a person naturally given to expressing joy). She talks about workouts as “adult playtime,” and since we’ve been home, she’s built things like handstands and crow pose, and variations on the same, into a more traditional “HIIT” workout format. She can’t help herself from dancing or strict pressing her dog between sets, and she calls attention to how delightful people look when working out with their kids, or playing with their pets.  Even though we are mostly on mute, Alex’ interactions and laughing at herself create a sense of playful community that feels mutually supportive.

With her, I am simultaneously fearless and 9 years old, and wise and strong and 55. I will hurl myself upside down in a handstand in the middle of the floor, and I will trust her when she tells me to slow it down. Sometimes we are leaping around, and sometimes we focus deeply on one tiny mobility movement.

It all feels enlivened: this playfulness creates an “enlivened safety” where we can push our own boundaries.  Every workout we do with Alex is designed to scaffold us to build confidence at the end of our current capacity and push it just a little further – and then she pays attention to each of us to mark and signal our progress.

As a coach, Alex has an innate understanding of how to work with Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development.”  Where she push our edges with weight or equipment in “real life,” in covidspace, she designs workouts that always leave a little room for each of us, independently, to reach for an extra few reps. She finds new ways for us to use our bodies – like rowing movements using just our arms against the floor – that require no equipment but get the job done.


Bags of books sub in for dumbbells as the team do bicep curls.

She notices and names the edge for each of us, intuits that precise moment where, with encouragement and detailed analysis and guidance for our particular bodies, we can take it one step further. She pays attention to the chat box on Zoom and offers a continual stream of modifications if needed.  Even while she is doing the movements herself, she is calling out individuals with encouragement or suggestions – “Serena, LOOK at that wall walk!” – and tracking when we’ve done something like a freestanding handstand for the first time (which we can then all celebrate together).

All of this playfulness and presence is backed up by Alex’ ability to translate expertise into practical application.  Alex, a trained kinesiologist, has designed our weeks to have a cycle, starting with mobility and strength on Monday, playfulness and strength on Tuesday, conditioning and strength on Wednesday, rest on Thursday, ramping up on Friday and “sweaty Saturday,” followed by another rest day. There is a lot of theory behind the design, but understanding it is less important than the lived experience of feeling that each day feels doable and like “the right thing for today.”

A screenshot of one of Alex’s Covid-19 online workouts

Alex’s workouts have always been shadowed by this kind of impeccable expertise, but in the covidtimes, she does an even more critical translation of theory into practice because she assumes we have zero workout equipment, and works from there. This in turn creates a sense of resourcefulness, in multiple ways – our bodies become our reliable tools, something to know and explore more than ever.  We use what’s at hand – like lululemon bags filled with books or cans of soup – to add new options to existing moves. We are all negotiating new existences right now – and the symbol of a bag of books (or, in Kim’s case, a summer tire from the basement!) as a weight reminds us that we have the capacity to mcgyver our lives, to deal with whatever comes, with a little creativity and a little joy.

What all of this adds up to, for me, is that Alex designs and leads classes based on our needs, not her agenda. Clearly, she gets something out of this – she talks about the importance of this community and her gratitude for having the team alongside her – but it never feels like we are doing something because she thinks it would be a fun Instagram challenge or she wants to show off something she is good at.  She recognizes that in this extraordinary time, we are in need of movement, in need of care, in need of connection, in need of joy, and in need of reminders that we are strong and resourceful. We do squats and lunges and wallwalks and move our bodies – but the overarching experience is of feeling – for an hour – like we are superheroes who can handle whatever else comes.

Working out in covidtime means pets are part of the process!

Two months ago, I was in the gym lifting heavy things. Now, I can’t imagine trying to lift an actual barbell.  Deadlifting or back squats seem to belong to another type of person altogether — “but that was in another country, and besides, the wench is dead,” to retrieve a quote from my long ago undergrad in English. Yet there’s something fitting, RIGHT NOW, about working out by moving a towel around on a slippery floor with our feet, doing step-ups on a kitchen chair, lifting bags of books. “If this is too much, take some things out of your bags,” enjoined Alex as we moved from curls to flies.

That’s how I feel right now. I’m lifting unfamiliar things, every minute, and I need to take some things out of my bags. Integrating this literal metaphor into my workouts – and into my teaching and coaching, too – is reassuring me that I can adjust. I’m not in it alone.

We’re all looking for community. And we’ll all adjust.

Cate Creede, PhD, is a consultant, educator, and coach who lives in Toronto, working mostly in the space of academic healthcare and higher education.  She also runs a youth development project in Uganda and writes for the Fit is a Feminist Issue blog. She is aiming for a successful freestanding handstand by the end of the lockdown.

You can find out more about Alex at www.abhmovement.com

For more on Cate, see: https://www.potentialgroup.com/about-us/








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!

Course Evals 2.0: Things We Can Do Now to Make a Flawed Process Better

Kelsey’s post last week, about managing end-of-term course evaluations, struck a chord with me. I’ve fretted about course evals for as long as I can remember; when the results come in, months after a class has ended, I get that panicked feeling in my stomach, the same one I used to get before a big paper was returned back when I was an undergrad myself.

Yes, reader: as a lifelong resident of the ivory tower, I worry about whether or not my students are going to give me an A. 

I’ve been teaching full time for almost 15 years now; I learned long ago that grades are an uneven, cruelly dopamine-laden way to measure student achievement. And yet – despite reams of literature that reflect the fallibility of end of term course evaluations, and their remarkable capacity to rehearse systemic biases based on race and gender – I can’t seem to stop myself scanning my results for the numbers and praying for rain.

After reading Kelsey’s post, I found myself reflecting on my relationship with course evals. Certainly there’s the stuff above, the unhealthy craving for the dopamine hit that comes with a positive response. But there’s also more.

Like many colleagues working toward best pedagogical practice, I’ve tried a range of different ways to gauge student experience at different points in the term. I’ve used my own, anonymous, mid-term evaluations, especially early on, when I wasn’t sure if anything I was doing in the classroom was working. I’ve invited students to reflect on their most and least favourite in-class activities, and even to vote for what we should or should not do on a given day. Recently, I’ve started using participation reflection papers, where, twice per term, students upload a 250-300 word piece (in any form they want – I stress this isn’t an essay) that considers how class is going in light of our course’s posted participation rubric.

My university (like yours, probably) has also gotten into the “better feedback” game: Western now has an online portal where students complete their evaluations and can access loads of information about what they are used for, plus helpful tips for effective feedback. This portal has a login tool for instructors, where we can add questions to the standard form, check response rates for open evals, and more. Students are incentivized to feed back with a gift card draw, guideline documents, and videos demonstrating the process. The system is very consumer-oriented, like most things in the neoliberal university, but it’s also far more user-friendly and open than the paper-based, computer-marked, sealed-enveloped systems of old.

What does all this fresh focus on good feedback mean? Is it translating into systemic change, or just lipsticking the pig? As I struggle myself with meaningful feedback that doesn’t send me into the “please give me an A!!” tailspin, I wonder.

And so, wondering, I turn to Facebook.

Over the weekend I asked colleagues on FB to let me know what they did to “hack” the course evals system at their joint; judging by the responses to that post, the answer was not that much. Certainly we insist to our students that their feedback matters; we offer time in class to fill forms in; we add questions when possible. Some of us, like Kelsey, take the initiative to ask different, not-formally-sanctioned questions, including at mid-term. But we are busy, and we are tired, and course evaluations are JUST ONE MORE THING that we need to worry about as the term rockets to a close.

In this evaluation exhaustion, we share much in common with the students, as I soon learned.

After spamming my colleagues, I asked some former students to feed in. My question to them was as follows:

More thinking about course evals. I’d love to hear from recent former students. Did you treat them seriously? As a chore? Were you cynical about their value? In a world of constant online reviews, etc, how do traditional evaluations rate?

The results I got here were fulsome, and very diverse. Two students told me they were committed optimists who took the exercise very seriously. Another told me his sister was a lecturer while he was at school, and therefore he understood from the inside what the stakes for professors were, which coloured his perception of evaluations. As he noted, from that both-sides perspective, he felt it was essential to be able to justify not giving a teacher top marks. (A welcome attitude, one that takes a teacherly perspective to teacher “grading”.)

Still another student confessed to using evaluations to reward good teachers and dig a bit at the bad ones, knowing that his feedback had a potential professional impact for both. (YIKES, but totally fair – that’s what we are asking students to do, right??)

Finally, one of my best-ever students shocked me by revealing that she did not give a flying frankfurter about any of it, and probably hadn’t filled out most of her evals anyway. (She really dug the gift card incentive, though.)

These diverse responses about the experience of course evaluations converged at one point, however: Timing. As cranky-pants Camille* (above), after confessing to eval ennui, added:

“if administration wants to have a genuine dialogue with students about how certain classes/professors may or may not be working, why don’t evals happen halfway through a semester? This gives everyone time to adjust on the fly. No one cares in the final weeks of class because nothing can be done to help the students that were struggling all along. The idea of course evals is wonderful, although I don’t think the way the system is currently set up ‘helps’ the students in any way.”

Mid-term check-ins are increasingly typical, but they aren’t yet the norm. At Western, instructors are invited to do an “optional” mid-term check in, but even though I’m fully committed to student feedback, I’ve never taken the option.

The timing thing stands out for me here not because it’s a great idea (OF COURSE IT IS), but because it gets at deeper issues, which Camille nicely bulls-eyes in the above comment. Do we want evaluations to be part of a dialogue about teaching and learning? If so, why do they still work like a multiple-choice, one-way street? Do we want evaluations to be materially helpful? If so, what are they doing at the end of the semester? We need to frame them, locate them, and structure their relationship to classes, to departments, and to the university community as a whole very differently if this is actually our aim.

After all this fulsome feedback from Camille, Jake, Jonas, Jack, and Thalia appeared in my FB feed, a couple of colleagues weighed in. One, playwright and Weber State theatre professor Jenny Kokai, wrote about her recent experiences on a committee rethinking evaluations at her school. (NB: there are a lot of these projects afoot, which I discovered when I went snorkelling for some of the research before writing this post. I was particularly impressed by the documentation around the recent pilot project at the University of Waterloo, just up the highway from my house.)

Dr Kokai pointed out that research reveals mid-semester feedback focuses on class effectiveness, while later semester feedback is generally tied to grade expectations. She also noted that metacognitive questions – about, say, students’ learning practices, and their parallel commitments to their own class labour – tend to offer a more holistic picture of student experience, while also benefitting students as a reflection experience.

I’ve realized over the course of preparing this post that it’s exactly this last thing – encouraging metacognitive reflection – to which I’ve turned my attention. As a teacher, it’s where I want to put my time and energy.

Why don’t I take the mid-term “feedback” option Western gives me? I’m too busy reading and writing back to students’ mid-term participation reflections!

In these documents I invite students to think about what’s working and not working for them in their current participation practice – I’ve taken to framing participation, and studenting in general, as a practice, in the same way I call my teaching a practice. (I repeat this to students as often as possible. All we can all ever do is PRACTICE!) These reflections are not anonymous documents, but – as with peer review, a post for another day! – I don’t think student feedback need be anonymous to be useful. In my class, you can get full participation marks only if you engage with the participation reflection exercise, but other than that these documents are not graded, and nobody is discouraged from being frank and clear about both strengths and weaknesses. Students write these reflections to themselves and to me, in the lowest-stakes possible way, and reveal where their wins and their struggles are; I then use that feedback as an opportunity to make suggestions, check in, validate their perceptions, and invite them to come sit down in office hours to figure stuff out. At the very least, I gain some tools that allow me to check in with them, in class, repeatedly until the end of the semester.

This week, our last of term at Western, both of my classes will do a guided reflection in class, where I will ask three slightly different questions: what went really well after your last check in? What didn’t get off the ground? And, most importantly: what have you learned about your own experience of learning that you can take with you into next term?

These reflections cannot replace fully anonymous feedback, of course, but they model the kinds of questions, and invite the kinds of mutual and dialogic class investments, that all evaluation tools need to aim for. The next step is to shift our evaluation structures systemically so that “feedback” becomes actual dialogue, and leads to a better understanding of what it takes to sustain a healthy learning environment from both ends.

*Thanks to Camille, and to everyone who responded to my queries, for their reflections and for granting me permission to cite them here.