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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I asked them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The WALS (Wide or Wonderful Amiable Learning Space):

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

Katie celebrates another terrific white-board achievement.

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

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

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

Stay tuned for more WALS adventures as I have them!

Kim

 

 

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

(Or: What if they all get As?)

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

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

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

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

They. All. Got. As.

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

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

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

And I thought,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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HOLY COW!!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I thought maybe yes. Probably yes.

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Of course, Homer is rarely correct.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So why should they not all get As, then?

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

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

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

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

Kim

OMG SPACE. Proper classroom space!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My first reaction to my WALS tour was:

HOLY SHIT. This classroom is unbelievable!

My second reaction was:

WHY ARE MORE CLASSROOMS NOT LIKE THIS???

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

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

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

And she said yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Preview | Buy Now

 

Enjoy!

Kim

Collaborative Writing, with Undergrads

Those of you who read regularly know I’ve been jonesing for collaboration lately. I talked about it extensively in my recent post for Gary and Lena at the Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home, and I reflected on my need for more of it in my last post, which focused on what’s next (or might be next) for my writing practice.

Then, a couple of weeks ago – just as the semester had reached the “oh lord, just shoot me now” point that is early April – an opportunity for an ideal collaboration, with a senior undergraduate student, fell into my lap.

Keith Tomasek at Stratford Festival Reviews had invited me a while back to review the Canadian premiere of Fun Home, the Lisa Kron/Jeanine Tesori musical based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir of the same name. (NB: Bechdel test? THAT Bechdel.) The tickets finally came through (along with yet another dump of late-season snow) and I realized I had a spare ticket to give away.

Cue the moment when I ALSO realized that my fourth-year honours thesis student, Rachel Windsor, had spent the last six months researching and writing about Bechdel’s memoir. Might she like to come along? She jumped at the chance – and also at the chance to help me out with the review. Her writing on the memoir was stellar, original; I knew she’d be a great collaborator, even if a novice reviewer. Our team was born.

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Here’s Rachel, in her headshot for our review.

The night of the show was another blusterer (thanks, winter. Fuck off now like a good pet, please), but we had a fabulous time. It was opening night, so the crowds were thick in the tiny main-floor theatre lobby, and many were dressed up and partying in the second-floor lobby bar. The cast began a little bit out of tune, but that lasted no more than a few minutes. In no time, the inescapable enthusiasm and raw talent of the young members of the cast (there are three children in the show) shone through, and we were laughing hard and clapping harder at the signature number “Come to the Fun Home” (Fun Home = Bechdel family funeral home) – with the young Bechdels Jackson-Five-ing it in and around the casket they are polishing.

After the show, Rachel and I walked back to Dundas Square and chatted about what we liked and didn’t like; what we’d expected, gotten, and not quite gotten, from the 90-or-so minute show. We hatched a plan to compare notes the next day.

The next morning, in the middle of one of my final exams, I had a bit of a revelation: what if Rachel and I restaged our post-show chat as a dialogic review? I sketched a raw outline and shot it over to her. She began filling in answers to my mock questions, and we were off.

The results are now up at Stratfordfestivalreviews.com, and I couldn’t be more pleased with how it’s turned out – not least because this review practically wrote itself, what with the fun of re-enacting our dialogue on paper and the pleasure of working with a genuinely talented and capable collaborator.

Here’s a short excerpt; for the full review, please click here.

Kim: Rachel, you’ve been working on Bechdel’s memoir, on which the musical is based, for over a year. That’s a whole lot of back story to bring to an adaptation! Going into the performance, what did you most want to see translated from page to stage?

Rachel: I definitely walked into the theatre with a lot of anticipation! My own work on the memoir has to do primarily with its powerful engagements with trauma and memory – both Alison’s and her dad’s – so I was really hoping to see the actors grapple with representing these challenging concepts on stage.

Bechdel describes her work in the original memoir as “tragicomic,” but a large part of the premise of “Fun Home” is Bechdel’s own father Bruce Bechdel’s suicide. It’s hard to make that scenario lighthearted – which is at least somewhat necessary in a musical! – and so I was very curious to see how Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori would go about building this central, traumatic situation into the entertainment value that musicals demand.

Kim: I’m someone relatively unfamiliar with Bechdel’s memoir (your thesis introduced me to it, in fact!), but I’m familiar with Lisa Kron and her legacy as a member of the Five Lesbian Brothers performance troupe (in New York in the 1980s and 1990s). I therefore expected a story that would foreground lesbian experience from a specifically queer-feminist point of view, but also from a quite personal perspective. (Kron has written other popular autobiographical works, including 2.5 Minute Ride and Well.)

The musical’s primary focus, in fact, is on Alison’s coming-out story, and especially on the way that story intertwines with Bruce’s life as a closeted gay man. Given Kron’s background, that personal-is-political framing made sense to me. So did the use of three Alisons to add rich context and scope to this particular lesbian life.

(Small Alison is played by Hannah Levinson; college-aged [Medium] and adult Alison are played by Sara Farb and Laura Condlln respectfully. The latter two are regulars with the Stratford Festival, as is Evan Builing [Bruce], and Cynthia Dale [who plays Helen Bechdel]).

Fun Home, Toronto, Sara Farb, Hannah Levinson, Laura Condlln. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Sara Farb, Hannah Levinson, Laura Condlln.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Rachel: The three Alisons were brilliant; thanks to them, the musical adaption really foregrounded the role and function of memory in the story. The graphic memoir carefully resists the kind of linear timeline that we associate with autobiography, and I think the adaption would have lost an important quality had it reverted to the traditional past-to-present structure typical of memoir storytelling.

And the Alisons interact! For example, I really enjoyed when adult Alison cringes hilariously at Medium Alison’s awkward attempts to woo her first crush. This strategy allowed the musical to employ a more embodied process of remembering, and to make room for lots of welcome laughter.

Kim: The musical dates to 2013. But, even in 2018, the commentary the musical embeds about the incredible personal challenges that coming out in real life entails is as essential for me as it ever was. I often worry that, for all the good it can do, the current media vogue for gender-queerness risks masking the fact that actually living a gay or trans life is not as easy as selling a look on TV. Queer and trans folk still face real barriers, enormous discrimination, and violence.

All that said, I also hoped for a bit more politics in the musical. Sometimes it felt too easy to empathize with Alison’s story – as though all human experience at bottom is the same.

Sara Farb’s stand-out performance as Medium Alison is a joy to watch and hear, especially as she belts out the lines to “Changing My Major,” the iconic song in which she “comes out” to herself after a night with her new girlfriend, Joan. But Farb’s gorgeous accessibility is also, politically, for me a bit of a liability.

A young woman who just wants to be able to draw cartoons and love another woman with her parents’ blessing: in 2018, who can’t get behind that message? But, of course, the story Bechdel tells is nowhere near that simple.

Rachel: I had similar feelings about the musical’s rendering of Bruce. I wish that we could have seen more emphasis on his affairs with underage boys.

The character Roy (played by Eric Moran) in the memoir is one of Bruce Bechdel’s current high school students. The musical ages him up to become a recently graduated student. But part of the discomfort of Bechdel’s memoir comes from the reader’s reluctance to understand Bruce as a predator, or even as a pedophile.

As readers, we can’t really fall into easy generalizations of Bruce as a one-dimensional villain, because he’s such a loving and inspiring dad to Alison. At the same time, though, the memoir constantly reminds us that Bruce groomed and took advantage of young boys throughout his life as a teacher.

In the musical, there is still a sense of that predatory nature in some of Bruce’s interactions with Roy. For example, there’s a moment near the end of Helen’s solo when Bruce offers Roy a drink – on the condition that he takes off his shirt. Still, I found the musical left out a lot of the immoral and criminal actions that make Bruce such a complex character.

I can’t wait to do this again! Maybe I’ll make a point of taking students to ALL my future commissions. Thanks, Rachel, for such a joyful and revelatory writing experience!

Enthusiastically,

Kim

Active learning in the graduate seminar room

This past autumn I taught my first graduate seminar in almost eight years; as a result of sabbaticals, career moves, and then my labour establishing a new undergraduate theatre studies program at Western, I had had neither the time nor the opportunity to teach graduate students (Brits: that’s postgrads to you) since summer 2009. I was excited to get back into the seminar room with smart MA and PhD candidates, but I was also a bit daunted.

I find graduate teaching a mixed blessing. On one hand: smart students, well read, self-selecting into a challenging program. We can expect them to be prepared; we can expect them to be keen; we can expect them to participate. On the other, though, there’s the whiff of imposter syndrome all around us in grad seminars: every student is eyeing every other student, wondering if they know enough, if they are smart enough. Showing off can ensue; oneupmanship happens whether students intend it to or not. Fraught dynamics emerge; and there I am, the prof who ALSO fears she doesn’t actually know enough to be teaching graduate students, caught in the middle, trying to keep the discussion on track.

(Imposter syndrome never goes away; you just learn to cope better with it. Sorry.)

impostor-syndrome-cartoon-823x1024

With years between me and my last graduate outing, I had some questions for my peers as I prepared the syllabus: how much reading is too much? Not enough? Are we still assigning One Seminar Presentation and One Final Essay, or have assessments evolved? In general the consensus was: 100 pages per week, give or take; seminar presentations always; one or two essays as you prefer.

The goal, as ever, was to make discussions in the room rich, but prep not too onerous. Grad seminars, the logic goes, should involve the prof and the class preparing the reading, and then coming to the room with questions and ideas to propel a discussion. Profs aren’t prepping lectures (or, most aren’t), and the onus is on the group to find useful things to say about each set of readings each week.

Pure, unadulterated active learning.

Except, well… maybe not. As I planned my new course (“Performance and the Global City”; please email me if you’d like a copy of the syllabus!) I spent a lot of time thinking back to my earlier graduate seminar experiences, both as a teacher and as a student. I realized that the traditional seminar model creates some barriers to access that reveal its limits as an active learning environment.

First of all, good discussions require a fair bit of curation; it’s not enough to come to class with a handful of talking points and/or questions for the room and assume everyone will be able to jump in and dig deep, just like that. (Quiet students will always struggle with the “so, what did we think?” opener, and, no, it’s not them, it’s us.)

Second, certain voices dominate class discussions because they have been trained by existing learning protocols to do so; those voices are comfortable with minimal prompting, and they aren’t always aware of how much space they are taking up. For profs keen to get a rousing discussion going around the seminar table, those voices are a godsend; we may complain to each other in the halls or over drinks about the students who dominate our discussions, but without the keeners who can kill airtime, our under-curated discussions can stall and leave us exposed.

Finally, can I just say that the traditional graduate seminar presentation is more often than not boring as heck? Does anyone actually enjoy listening to anyone else read a paper for 20 minutes at a go? What – other than how to write a clever paper and deliver a very dull conference presentation – do we imagine we are teaching our postgrads with this kind of assessment?

OK, so I know I’m being hard on tried and true models here, and if your graduate seminars run conventionally but very well then I’m really glad, and I would not want to stop you from carrying on with them. But the more I thought about the grad seminar status quo, the more I knew I didn’t want to do it again. So I hatched a new plan.

I decided to import a bunch of flipped-classroom active learning techniques from my undergraduate classes into my new graduate seminar.

This shift manifested in two key ways. First, student presentations were styled as peer teaching presentations, not research presentations. Every student was required to teach one article over the course of the term to the rest of the class, and students were required to work in pairs for this task. Further, I explicitly asked them not to create a lecture, but instead to frame the teach with an active learning exercise.

Here’s the brief for the peer teach I included in the syllabus:

PEER TEACHING EXERCISE

Once this term you will work in pairs to lead the class in an exploratory exercise based on one of our readings. The goal: to help you to try out different ways to connect students with challenging material. For that reason, I ask you not to prepare a lecture-style statement for this task; you should of course have thoughts about your reading you would like to draw out, but the point of this exercise is not to tell us what they are.

Here’s how the task will work:

  • By Wednesday at NOON of your week to teach, you will post to OWL a provocation (maybe a question, maybe not…) based on ONE of the readings for that week. Let Kim know in advance which reading you will focus on.
  • Your classmates will offer preliminary reflections on your provocation on OWL over the following 24 hours. You should read and note these reflections.

You will then prepare a learning exercise to help us explore your provocation.

There are lots of exercises to choose from; you might want to consult some research on “active learning” or the “flipped classroom” to help you out – the Teaching and Learning Centre at Weldon can help with this, or (of course!) you can have a chat with Kim to discuss some options. Your exercise need not be complicated, but it should be more than you simply asking everyone, “so, what did you think?”

When you come to class on Thursday, you will run your exercise, and then debrief it. Here, you can incorporate your classmates’ preliminary responses as much or as little as you feel will be productive.

You will have a total of 30 minutes for your teach. (NOTE: this is actually not a lot of time! Use it with care.)

Clear as mud? Don’t worry! Kim will model this task in our second week. If you’re still stuck, though, ask yourself this question: did a teacher ever do a really useful, cool thing in class that really stuck with you? What was that cool thing?

Second, not only did I model a variety of peer teaching exercises for the students in the second class of the term, in order to give them a concrete sense of how their own teaching sessions could work, but I continued to incorporate group-based and pairs-based learning exercises in my own teaching week to week in order to make those things normative in our seminar room.

We’d do think/pair/share work, we’d use “world cafe” or long table-style discussions, and one week we even debriefed our field trip to Detroit by creating team maps of the experience on flip chart paper, trying to draw connections between our on-the-ground experiences and the ideas conveyed by our readings about the city.

(Candid snaps of the students at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit – Sebastian, Lacey, Sharon, Emily and Robyn)

The students came along, gamely, for the ride – although they were understandably hesitant at first. I made a point of leaving my office door wide open to them as they prepared for their teaches, and after each teach I’d invite the presenters to come for a debrief, where we’d talk about what went well and what didn’t, and where they could be free to ask me all kinds of questions about active learning models.

Students consistently reported to me that they enjoyed the teaching exercise, found it unusual but productive; nevertheless, I couldn’t shake the feeling they were just humouring me. After all, grad seminars are supposed to be complex, serious learning environments… and we were mostly just having a good time. My imposter syndrome gurgled away in the pit of my stomach. Could they really be taking this seriously, getting as much out of it as they were getting out of the modernist theory and poetry seminar up the hall?

When my seminar evaluations landed in my email inbox last week, that gurgle erupted once more. Here was the moment of truth: What They Really Thought about our flipped seminar, all those small group discussions and messing about with coloured markers.

To my genuine surprise and utter delight, the evaluations universally praised the experience. I was astonished; students called our class a “refreshing and dynamic break” from the traditional model, a “comfortable and open learning environment” where everyone “could express their opinions and ideas without fear of judgement.” This one below is my favourite, because it tells me I achieved everything I had wanted to do, and also more than I’d hoped:

Through her use of active learning in her teaching practice, Kim fostered a deeply collaborative class environment. It was an environment where it felt safe to fail, which made it all the more generative – we were able to take risks, offer partial thoughts, and hash them out together.

I really appreciated that she encouraged using creative practices in our assignments, especially given the course material. Being able to engage in the practices that we were locating in our readings and field trips was a really valuable research method for me – that Kim gave us the latitude to work outside the boundaries of more traditional methods really enhanced my experience in this course.

Last Friday I had lunch with one of the students from the class, Emily Hoven. I told Emily about the evaluations and my surprise at their unwavering support for the flipped seminar model; I then asked her if she could talk to me a bit about what in particular she had found productive (or even not productive) about the model.

Her reply confirmed my own suspicions and chimed with the data on the evaluations.

She noted, first, that there’s a spirit of competition in graduate seminars that is not always helpful; everyone’s trying to say the next smart thing. That can make for brilliant, lively discussions, but can also make for intimidation and fear. In our class, she pointed out, we all worked together in a more equitable way; as a result, feelings of competitive angst lessened considerably.

Next, she pointed out that, as an undergraduate, she’d had a lot of experience with flipped classrooms, and thus our classroom felt both familiar and safe. Never mind that the model was unlike other grad seminars; it was like enough to active learning that many students are now experiencing at university that it provided a sense of grounding for students who might otherwise be struggling. She noted that likely this was not true for all the students in the class, but my guess is it’s also more true for many than we might think. As active learning becomes more common at the undergraduate level, we should consider its value as continuity at the graduate level, especially for Master’s students who are undergoing a sea change in their learning experiences and expectations as they enter grad school for the first time.

Finally, Emily’s comments, along with those on the evaluations, reminded me of what I found to be the most positive peer-teach outcome of all: it required everyone to renegotiate the vocal dynamic in our seminar space. Remember above, when I noted that certain voices tend to dominate seminars because they’ve been trained to do so by extant pedagogical models? In our classroom, new models driven by different learning dynamics meant quieter voices were invited actively into the learning space; shifting the room’s architecture (figuratively, but frequently literally, too, as we moved furniture to facilitate different kinds of group work) changed the default “permissions” of our seminar space, to productive effect.

In one of my favourite peer teaches of the term, this shift became glowingly evident as the most vocal person in the room and one of the quietest worked together; the former student actively placed herself in the peer teach’s supporting role in order to make space for her peer to take centre stage.

It was remarkable evidence of the power of genuine “active learning” in the graduate classroom to help everyone feel a little less like an imposter, and a little more like an empowered knowledge-maker.

Feeling grateful,

Kim