On Political Animals, by Sophie Mayer: writing as activism

(An Activist Classroom Book Review)

This blog is called “The Activist Classroom” because I believe that teaching, writing about teaching, and thinking about teaching and learning (especially in relation to performance) are all activating practices. They are things we do to inspire, stimulate, and charge others to engage in public debate, thoughtful reflection, and critically aware acts of citizenship.

I don’t talk overtly about activism a lot on the blog, largely because I see this as a space in which to explore what “activism” means: the different valences of the term, and what acts it can signify beyond its more obvious, old-school, and – it must be said – always courageous and essential roots out on the streets. So, when an exceptional example of non-traditional activism crosses my desk, I’m keen to investigate it, and usually to share my thoughts about it.

Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinemaby Sophie Mayer, is one such example. It offers a comprehensive, enthusiastic, generous, elegant, smart and forceful look at nearly 500 films from 60 countries. It is written for the widest possible audience but pulls no intellectual punches along the way. It opens with a discussion of Frozen telescoped through the reflections of a young female viewer (Mayer’s god-daughter); those reflections become a model for its inclusive, girl-positive ethos. It ends with a formidable call to action for cinema lovers of all ages, backgrounds, sexes and genders – but with girls called first to the front line.

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On the front line: Elle Fanning and Alice Englert in Sally Potter’s Ginger and Rosa (2012).

Before I go further, full disclosure: Mayer is an old friend of mine. We attended Massey College at the University of Toronto together, and we shared a PhD professor, though not a PhD program (hooray for interdisciplinarity!). She is the reason I own a Wheelock’s Latin primer, and the reason I believe that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the greatest television program ever made. (OBVIOUSLY.)

But our personal connection is beside the point in this review – truly. I requested a copy of Political Animals from Mayer’s publisher, I.B. Tauris*, because I knew when I saw the abstract online that it would be essential reading for me. I also knew, given my academic expertise in feminist performance, that I’d be able to provide a balanced and informed reading of it, whatever the weather. Moreover, knowing something of Sophie’s work as a film curator, popular culture critic, and voracious and eclectic film consumer, I strongly suspected it would seriously kick ass.

I was right.

In a nutshell, Political Animals is a book about what Mayer calls “representational justice” (after “reproductive justice” [20]): she looks at but also very far beyond mainstream cinema in order to locate the images, narratives, and techniques that allow the feminist filmmakers she tracks to paint for us a picture of our world that is critical of our patriarchal present but also full of hope, “love, vigour and courage” (8). What’s a feminist filmmaker, for Mayer? Her definition:

A stance of ongoing public activism, rooted in but not limited to gender equity, underlies my definition of a film, filmmaker, film theorist or film viewer as feminist. …Drawing on the modes of criticism laid out by Jill Dolan in The Feminist Spectator in Action – argument and advocacy, forming an activist criticism engaged with artistry – I suggest what lies beyond: activist viewers of an activist cinema. Where the active viewer makes connections to and within the film, the activist viewer connects the film and the world. (8, final emphasis added)

Mayer’s book has numerous strengths, but chief among them is this: it shows performance criticism at work, as activism. (Or, to put this another way: it does feminism as criticism, and it does feminist criticism as activism.) Mayer sees herself as an activist, to be sure, but her book positions us – ordinary audience members, film fans everywhere, you and me – as the ultimate activist agents in the public sphere, central players in the debates that shape the making, doing, sharing, and viewing of art in a moment of political precarity. (Or, indeed, in any political moment. I’m not sure we’ll be getting less precarious anytime soon.) This is probably the most inspiring thing about Political Animals, especially for student readers. It fills reading, watching, and thinking with a sense of true agency.

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Sophie Mayer, photo by Ian Mantgani

Beginning from this democratic premise – that VIEWERS become activists when they have (and use) the tools to “connect the film and the world” – Mayer surveys an absolutely staggering amount of cinema, grouped into themed chapters. The first offers an “alt” reading of feminist film history – one in which the typical story of scarcity (“not enough feminist work!”) is replaced with a sense of “plenty” (“look at all this feminist work we’ve not been talking about!” [14-18]). Following on, chapters two and three take on ecological issues, examining films that engage animals, earth, and other forms of “bare” life in political solidarity with women’s concerns. Chapters four (on women making movies about war) and five (on the many faces of modern British feminist cinema) are more traditionaly geopolitical, while chapters six (feminist costume drama! My favourite!**) and seven (on the political power of female fantasy) explore “trad” women’s art and craft practices for those practices’ radical possibilities, when they are coopted effectively for (and by) the feminist imagination.

The final three chapters look to topics at once “done” and not nearly done (well) enough: girls (taking up space), homes and family life, and love. Mayer concludes with a vibrant, inspiring “open letter” (modelled after the open letters of some of her filmmaking heroes) to viewers, artists, critics, and curators as she peers into a future that is in the shaping, right now. That future is being imagined, created, filmed and talked about by the girl(s) she and I once were (the Riot GRRRL generation); the young female-identified artists watching, thinking, and making today, at home and at school and on their smart phones; and the thoughtful pioneers still all around us, in no way done with their essential work. Mayer invites us every one into the tent of her activist writing and viewing practice: channeling Kathleen Hanna, she cries out: “Girls to the front: let’s go” (203).

There is so much material to admire in Political Animals, and if you are a cinema-hound or a film scholar (or aspiring to either, or both!), I urge you to grab a copy and dive in. What I want to emphasise in the rest of this review, though, isn’t content but form. I want to highlight the para-textual dimensions of Mayer’s work that make it a model for the kind of scholarship I know I want (and want more of us all) to write more often.

1. Political Animals risks accessibility, gorgeously. 

Mayer’s writing is intellectually rigorous but also fluid and lucid and full of heart. It takes seriously the notion that writing about art is a creative thing, not less than (or better than) the art it discusses, but a parallel document that exists in an intellectual and social relationship to its subject and forms a crucial part of our public engagement with that subject and the potential it holds to “remak[e] the world” (8). Mayer is a proper scholar-artist in her working life (that is: she makes art, curates art, and writes about art, moving seamlessly between these labours every day); here, she turns her phrases with the talent of a sculptor, reminding us that scholarship cannot be dry because it is creative, and as creative material it needs to inspire. As she writes at the end of her galvanising introduction:

Political Animals is written in homage and gratitude to the feminist scholars, curators, critics and bloggers whose work opened, and opens, up a world of film to me, and preserves it for us all. Above all, B. Ruby Rich’s feminist film history Chick Flicks brought news of films I couldn’t yet see (and had never dreamed possible). Her search, delivered in effervescent style, for ‘the kind of riveting, soul-replenishing work that can give girls and women the confidence and spirit to change the world’, is the shoulder upon which my book stands. (11)

2. Political Animals is rigorously inclusive.

In its inclusivity, this book reminds us that we must make our futures together, respectful of our differences yet committed to solidarity across difference, or we have nothing at all. The quotation above is an apt example of how Mayer’s critical generosity extends outward to those who have inspired and supported her; she pays that generosity forward in the exposure she grants the hundreds of filmmakers whose work she discusses – in many cases exposure long overdue.

Mayer’s scope is broad, always international and intercultural, and her language choices carry with them her deep understanding of the responsibility writing across cultural difference brings. She consistently chooses the terminology used by minority communities (trans, LGBTQIA, Indigenous – for example) as she addresses work from those communities, and she pays constant attention to the ways in which labels carry unconscious privilege, the privilege to decide who is “us” and who “them”. This might seems like a small thing, but I assure you it’s not: the research required to ensure naming and pronoun preferences are correct on a subject-to-subject basis, and the additional care needed in writing and copyediting in order to make sure casual errors are not left in the manuscript, is painstaking. Taking these pains indicates a willingness not to settle for “normative” language as normal, a desire to use words literally to speak a different and more inclusive world, page by page, into being.

3. Political Animals is evidence that reviewing film, theatre, performance – art, period – is essential cultural labour, labour we need to support and maintain in these rough political times.

By choosing to go long rather than deep in her engagement with most of her cinematic subjects, Mayer models film scholarship’s relationship to popular-culture reviewing, helping to break down the barriers between “criticism” and “reviews” – artificial and unhelpful as they are. In a moment when I often despair of the quality of performance reviews in the media outlets I rely on for information about the cultural zeitgeist (500 words, maybe; maybe written within an hour or two of the show, on the hoof, maybe on the phone!), this book represents film reviewing at its highest calibre. It takes the measure of trends, makes political connections, and articulates a vision for what yet may come. This is reviewing that takes time. It is reviewing that recognises its responsibility to support, engage, critique, and also adore that which it speaks of. It is reviewing as political activism.

Mayer’s kind of sustained, cultivated, invested engagement is essential for artists, and through them for the societies they both reflect and shape. Work like this forms part of a conversation artists need to have, in public, in order to move their practices forward. It forms part of a conversation spectators need to have in order to learn what it means to go to the cinema or the theatre with a world-making eye. And it forms part of a conversation we need to promote, urgently, online, louder and stronger every day, so that one day we might drown out the trolls – or, even better, render them hopelessly irrelevant. Perhaps we might even teach a few of them something about art, feminism, and inclusivity along the way.

Thanks, Sophie!

Kim

*If you’re concerned about where you send your money when you click to buy online, consider purchasing Political Animals direct from the publisher here.

**I have talked before about costume drama on the blog. I will again – very soon. Look forward to more from Mayer’s book in that upcoming post, as well as thoughts on season 2 of OutlanderOrange is the New Black, and the crazy-cool feminist western Strange Empire.

 

 

 

On flipping the theatre studies classroom… back again (part 2)

My last post reported on a workshop I recently co-organized with my colleagues Natalie Alvarez and Jenn Stephenson at the CATR annual conference in Calgary. The premise of the workshop was simple: it gathered teachers of theatre and performance history, asked us to think about the benefits of the “flipped classroom” model for our courses, and encouraged us to share our ongoing experiments in active learning.

Lots of great insights emerged, and I learned a bunch of terrific new things. We also, however, used the opportunity of the workshop to air some grievances about flipping, and the second half of our session turned into a really provocative discussion about the politics of the flipped classroom.

In this (second) post on the workshop I reflect on that discussion, and I end with some thoughts about the place (or lack thereof) of arts and humanities voices in the broader discourse around flipping.

***

We’d shared our research, talked about Grahame and Jenn’s blended learning experiences at Queen’s, and 90 minutes had come and gone. We took a break, and when we resumed it was time to talk about challenges we’ve encountered with the flipped model. (God, does Moodle ever suck! And students are crap at posting to WordPress.)

That’s when one of our auditors raised her hand and said…

“How is assigning readings beforehand, and discussing them together in class, different from ‘flipping’ the classroom?”

Then we all burst into fits of giggles, nods – and tears. (Well, not literally. But almost!)

What’s a flipped classroom? It’s a classroom in which students come having done pre-prep, reading or listening to content in advance. It’s a classroom where various kinds of group discussions and problem-solving activities take place, live, between us. It’s a classroom in which students are invited actively to engage in knowledge production, to use their embodied minds to test ideas on their feet, and to work collaboratively to challenge status-quo assumptions.

In other words: it’s a typical arts and humanities classroom.

More than that, in fact: it’s a very typical theatre and performance studies classroom.

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It’s not every A&H / T&P classroom, of course: I’m not suggesting that rote instruction, lecturing, and gob-smackingly boring sage-on-stage stuff doesn’t happen in the arts. On the contrary: I was subject to plenty of it myself when I was an undergraduate student, and I have seen it in more than one classroom I’ve peer-assessed as a tenured professor.

But let’s face it. Arts and humanities teachers invented the flipped classroom, and theatre and performance, along with all the other fine arts practices taught at college and university level, pioneered embodied learning. Whether we’re talking vigorous class debate about medical ethics on display in a contemporary British lit class discussing Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday, improvisation in a directing class exploring the fate of the murdered wife Desdemona in Othello, or experiments with found objects in a creative writing class focused on contemporary poetry, the pedagogical basis is the same. Student labour is framed as thinking, writing, speaking, and sharing in the room on the day. It often involves in-class collaboration. It regularly involves play. There’s often a chance to report back, to create something to share, or at the very least to get up and move around.

Which is why our workshop quickly moved on from sharing our (rather dry) findings from the flipped classroom “lit review” that opened our session to sharing best practices already in our collective teaching repertoire. As Jacqueline Taucar helpfully observed, we need to ask whether it’s the “flipped classroom” – the shiny new model, complete with how-to kit – that gets results, or the active learning component at the heart of the flipped classroom that really fires students up.

Our hunch was the latter. And around the table, numerous terrific (and fun!) examples of great active learning exercises came to light.

  • Jenn talked about her first-year theatre history students exploring the concept of “historiography” in a practical way as they worked in teams to compare and contrast the assumptions framing two different chapters in their textbook;
  • Martin Julien shared a task that saw students interviewing one another about their understandings of feminism, then reporting to the class on their findings;
  • Tony Vickery wowed us all with a description of his performance studies class on fantasy and cosplay, where students build their own board games (strictly low-tech!) and then play one another’s offerings to test their effectiveness. (The board games are all based on one or two of the theories/practices read for class);
  • Marlis Schweitzer shared our colleague Richie Wilcox’s hilarious scheme for teaching complex performance theory, in which students get to create a retelling of a well-known fairy tale in the style of a theory “ism”. (Little Marxist Riding Hood: bring it on!)

Notably, virtually all of these examples involved minimal or no technology.

So why, you must now be wondering, did we all get together to talk about “flipping” our classrooms if we’re already experts and our teaching practice is already flip-friendly?

The answer is simple, frustrating, and symptomatic:

Because what we have long been doing has now got a name, outcome stats, administrative momentum, and a budget line.

We’ve all been told from above that this thing called “flipping” is something we need to know about. Students are consumers, and we need to offer best practices that lead to strong outcomes. (Duh.) Data (typically based on teaching in the sciences, which has recently discovered flipping and wants to share it with us) shows active learning works better than passive learning. So we’ve been instructed by our resident teaching and learning experts, and encouraged by our gung-ho administrators, to learn, all over again, what it is that we already know – now neatly packaged into a model that can be easily sold across disciplines and around the world.

Or, put another way:

Arts and humanities instructors have had our teaching mansplained to us by the neoliberal university.

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Let me be clear: I’m not saying flipped classrooms are bad things. They have many, many virtues – though they also have some significant blind spots, like assuming that the internet is a panacea as opposed to a massive time suck, that all lecturing is bad and uninteresting, and that all students learn better within “activity” frameworks. (All of these things are, um, not true.)

I’m also not suggesting that T&L centres and senior administrators are wrong to support active learning (not at all!), nor that I resent the discovery of active learning’s value in the sciences (holy mary jane, of course not!).

I’m also not trying to imply that teachers like me have been awesome at gathering data on our own classrooms and shouting about the success of our models. We do this, sure, but probably not enough; it’s obvious we need to do more of it, and perhaps do it better. Some of this problem is on us, and we need to get busy.

What really bothers me, and many teachers like me, though, is that our own universities rarely bother to notice the entire faculty (faculties, in my case) of “flipping” experts on their doorsteps. They don’t visit our classes, I doubt they read our teaching publications (check out the top theatre pedagogy journal in North America here), and all too often they don’t think to invite us to present on panels related to active learning models.

(Last autumn I was asked – thanks to my forward-thinking colleagues Aisha Haque and Nanda Dmitrov – to host a session on community engaged theatre and its classroom applications at Western’s big fall teaching conference. This was the first time such a session had been offered; a number of key people, very skeptical when the session was first floated, were surprised at how well it was attended and received. Again, I say: duh!)

Nope, we don’t routinely get asked or read or invited. Instead, we are routinely told:

  • that studying the arts can’t get students jobs;
  • that our research lacks “impact”;
  • that we work on obscure topics without enough practical merit to encourage students and their parents to invest time and money in our classes.

So here’s my provocation. Could it be that, in the arts and humanities, our “impact”, our “value”, and our “interest” to students in search of both learning and jobs (yup, both of them, folks) might lie in the exceptional classroom experiences we can offer, as well as the remarkable pedagogical models we have pioneered and are eager to share with students and peers alike?

Could it be that as teachers we might inspire, change lives, redirect interests, and model excellent pedagogy – and not just for future teachers, but for current teachers across the disciplines as well?

If this is a “creative” economy, after all, our active(ist) arts classrooms are where creativity comes to life.

And yes: if you ask us, we’ll very happily talk about our awesome, crowd-shared, long-tested models with you. We’ll even make you get up on your feet! Just ask.

Please.

Kim

On flipping the theatre studies classroom… back again (part 1)

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A few weeks back I was in Calgary for the annual conference of my professional association, CATR (the Canadian Association for Theatre Research). I was one of the organisers, so sadly missed a good deal of the stimulating research presentations on offer across our four days together. I did, however, manage to make time to support my colleagues Natalie Alvarez and Jenn Stephenson in a workshop we put together on “flipped classroom” practice for theatre history teachers.

We had a terrific crop of graduate instructors, early, mid-career, and senior teachers in the large and diverse cohort of participants, and initially I imagined I’d do a blog post reporting our findings; what happened during the session, though, really got me thinking about the ways in which “flipped classroom” practice has been sold to instructors across disciplines in North America, and how our particular labour as humanities teachers – and specifically theatre and performance teachers – has been co-opted (and even elided) in that process. So, today’s post will include reportage from the workshop and some of the discoveries we made as we talked; then, tomorrow, I’ll paint the second half of the picture, which will include some provocations for those who curate our campus centres for teaching and learning. (Listen up, gang!)

***

Our workshop began with a brief discussion about the perceived neutrality of the classroom lecture model (the workshop was originally prompted by Natalie’s reading of this New York Times article on that very issue). According to information included in the NYT piece, normative in-class content delivery models (i.e., come to the lecture, take notes, revise before the essay or exam) tend to privilege expert learners – those who’ve gone to “good” schools, had “good” teachers, and enjoyed plenty of support from parents and siblings at home as they figure out how to take in and process lecture material efficiently. In short: this claim argues that lecturing can often been heavily classed and culturally biased, especially against some new immigrants and the children of the working poor.

Natalie asked us if we bought this argument: is lecturing indeed a privileged form of learning? When, and for whom? This question hovered over the entire workshop, and in our second half it became a spur for vigorous discussion about how the “flipped classroom” model is also not value-neutral. Certainly, the current critical mass of literature indicates that flipped classrooms get better results for more students than lecturing tends to do, but what about its impact on instructors? Who is being encouraged to “flip”, and who is posing as the flipping expert? What resources are being offered (or not!) to those from whom flipping is expected, and what kinds of academic practices are being exploited, or indeed undervalued, along the way? (More on this tomorrow!)

After Natalie’s introduction, individual participants reported on a wide range of flipped-classroom resources that we (actually, Jenn and Nat) had curated in advance. (You can see the list of readings, complete with links, on our workshop blog here.) Quickly it became apparent that a lot of this stuff says a lot of the same things:

  • flipping involves getting students to watch online materials in advance, do some advance reading (often also online), possibly complete some exercises or do some writing in relation to the viewing/reading, and then come to class prepared for a series of exploratory and problem-solving exercises based on that work. (This is often described as “pre-class”, “in-class”, and “post-class” labour);
  • flipping is broadly beneficial for most students and data suggests that grades improve overall under flipped models;
  • there are, within the pre-, in-, and post-class rubric, about a million ways actually to “flip” your classroom. (Indeed, you may already have flipped, and just don’t know it.)

Three compelling lines of inquiry emerged from our summaries:

  1. it was rapidly obvious to the majority of us that “flipping” the classroom is really just a particularly rigorous, thoroughly integrated version of old-fashioned active learning. The shiny new label makes this practice seem super innovative, of course – a bandwagon needing jumping-onto by all and sundry, rather than simply sound classroom practice – and encourages, for better but also for worse, senior university administrators to get very excited (and demanding).
  2. we talked about how heavily weighted toward the maths and sciences the literature on flipping tends to be. It’s often written by science-oriented teaching and learning scholars for (apparently often reluctant) maths and science teachers who (it is assumed) need schooling in the benefits of active learning. Everyone nodded at this trend: it’s one many of us have long perceived in our centres of teaching and learning on our various campuses. When was the last time you attended a teaching and learning event, one NOT organised by your faculty, that was delivered by an Arts instructor?
  3. we talked about student perceptions of the flipped classroom. Some of us reported a predictable, neoliberal response: “why should I pay the university so I can teach myself?” Many others, however, reported both improved student outcomes and genuine student enthusiasm for what we might call thoroughgoing flipping: active learning labour curated carefully across an entire term, with clear links to work backwards and forwards in the semester, clear goals and outcomes, and very clear assignment rubrics.

The take-away from this last point was, for me, a truly useful one: many of us already teach using active learning models (small group discussions, in-class debates, video assignments, etc), but there’s a step beyond that worth taking: linking active learning tasks week-to-week, and developing a series of activity models that can become predictable for students, even as they are varied and fun. Participant and Queen’s University instructor Grahame Renyk talked about the challenges for both students and teachers of increased “cognitive load”: flipped learning is based on smaller, more numerous tasks for students rather than the “one big essay at term’s end”; that can often mean lowering the stakes for students assignment-to-assignment, which is a great thing, but it also risks overwhelming students as they find themselves unable to time-manage many smaller tasks. (And, of course, those can be more onerous to mark as well.) Predictability in this case is really important for students, as it crystal clarity on the course outline about what students should expect from class time; for teachers, consistency across the term’s labour can make prep and marking more streamline-able as well.

In other words: “flipping” your classroom, vs engaging in what we might call normative active learning, is mostly about effective pre-planning for both you and your students, alongside managing student expectations of how active learning works and what they can get from it. That means it’s also dependent on a few other, entirely practical things that teachers need to be thinking about, and that universities need to provide proper support for. 

For example:

SPACE MATTERS. Grahame and Jenn (who are colleagues and often team-teach at Queen’s) shared information about how classroom spaces impact their flipped-classroom work. Grahame has moved all uni-directional content delivery online in order to free up in-class space for other work, but still struggles with the proscenium arch-style classroom he is given for his large course (and which is not conducive to group work, to say the least). Jenn, meanwhile, has benefited from a pod-based classroom that is ideal for group work, but that doesn’t facilitate lecturing as there is no “front” (and thus some students need to strain physically to see her when she speaks to the whole class).

All of us had similar space stories to share. Increasingly universities are doing a better job of planning active learning classroom spaces as new buildings are built and others renovated, but what’s often lost in this process is the recognition that flipped classroom-style active learning embeds numerous teaching practices within a single course, and each of those practices will have different physical needs. For such teaching to work well, classroom spaces need to be flexible above all.

COMMUNITY MATTERS. Flipping the theatre studies classroom has long been, for me, about carefully curating student groups and giving students the opportunity to stay with the same peer group all year. Several of our participants reported using the same strategy. Students sometimes complain about this (BORING!!), but consistent groups not only help with cognitive load; they also mean students get to know one another as a team, learn about one another’s strengths and weaknesses, and form community bonds as they strategize around problems that emerge from clashing work styles. Lots of flipped classroom work happens in teams; getting the team right, and then letting its ethos evolve longer-term, is key.

ONLINE: ESSENTIAL OR NOT? In the second half of our discussion we talked a lot about the growing expectation that the flipped classroom also be “blended”: delivered at least in part online. We developed a healthy skepticism by workshop’s end about the perceived requirement for online components. Lots of students work from mobile; are our university’s virtual learning environments mobile-friendly (if they are even any good to start!)? The consensus in our room: rarely. Lots of students are similarly not that media-savvy; the digital-native generation knows how to check Instagram and torrent TV shows, but not necessarily how to post to a course blog without making all kinds of time-consuming errors that instructors or TAs must then tidy up. And then there’s the biggest question of them all: is more online labour really more efficient and effective, or is it just another make-work component of neoliberal university labour, in which administration is downloaded onto both instructors and students even as the university’s admin cohort bloats with overpaid VPs and deputy Provosts?

More on that, and much more on the politics of flipping the classroom, tomorrow.

Kim

On “Minding American Education”, by Martin Bickman*

*An Activist Classroom book review.

I have a big stack of books next to my bed – like most bookworm types, I’d wager. It never grows smaller; in fact, I think it’s inhabited by book-replicating trolls. Or perhaps it’s simply that I’m slow to move through each title, falling asleep as I read most nights.

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(This image comes from shiyali.blogspot.ca.)

For the past few months, one of the titles on top of the pile has been Martin Bickman‘s 2003 volume, Minding American Education: Reclaiming the Tradition of Active Learning (New York: Teacher’s College Press). I finished reading it, at last, on the night before our first day back to class last week, and I’m eager to share my delight in it.

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Minding American Education is a rich tapestry, though it’s woven from two quite different strands of thread. I’m tempted, even, to say that there are two different books here, addressed to two different kinds of audiences: scholars of American literature on one hand, and teachers of elementary, middle, and high school students on the other. Nevertheless, the two strands of Bickman’s discussion move together like warp and weft, producing a broad-ranging discussion of the longstanding, powerful, and imaginative tradition of active learning in American pedagogical theory and practice.

 

Bickman is a literary scholar as well as a teacher of teachers, and through the chunky middle of Minding American Education he is concerned primarily with American transcendentalism (the works of Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, the Thoreaus, Ralph Waldo Emerson, for example) and especially with the ways in which the transcendentalists reimagined education as an enterprise in knowledge-creation rather than rote learning or linear dissemination. Bickman notes carefully the rarity of this kind of reading of the transcendentalists: while we appreciate, as a rule, the literary and philosophical merits of these authors’ works, much less common is our appreciation for how these pioneering American thinkers were rebelling against ways of teaching and raising children that encouraged teachers to replicate themselves in their students, and through that process to replicate dominant culture tropes and ideologies.

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(A trio of transcendentalists: H.D. Thoreau, Emerson, Fuller)

As Bickman moves, in the latter half of the book, into the modern period and eventually into his own, contemporary experiences teaching literature at the University of Colorado, the writing becomes less philosophically dense and gains what for many teachers may be more familiar ground. Nevertheless, I want to recommend not skipping the early chapters that bring transcendental theory into collision with education praxis; as a scholar with absolutely no knowledge of the transcendentalist tradition, I was both fascinated and moved by Bickman’s account – not least because it offers a very different picture (active; activist; exploratory; non-hegemonic) of American education history than most non-Americans are likely to expect.

Bickman makes a strong and – today more than ever, as Donald Trump lumbers toward the 2016 Republican presidential nomination – valuable case for why and how exploratory learning enables the development of creative and nuanced minds, and along the way he rescues a number of now-outré education scholars (John Dewey!) from the dustbin, mining their writing and their practice for important tools and insights. This is my favourite thing about Minding American Education, in fact: it has no time for educational faddism. Although it is committed to a practice of active learning, to tracing the history of that practice in American thought and to advocating for its futurity at the heart of a robust American democracy, it does not regard active learning as a fad, and it does not treat student-centred learning as anything but a methodology with a long, rich lineage. At bottom, it is 165 pages of evidence that active learning is not a fad – it is an ethics, it is education for democracy, and it has been around for a very, very long time.

For all this historical insight, however, my favourite chapter in Minding American Education, and the one I recommend EVERYONE read, is the last one: “Enacting the Active Mind: Teaching English, Teaching Teaching.” Here, Bickman relates his experience teaching two particular courses at the University of Colorado, one of which was actually two courses in one: a graduate class on the theory and practice of teaching literature, organised around the team-teaching of an undergraduate class in which the graduate students acted as teaching assistants, active teaching participants, laboratory experimenters, and careful observers. (I first learned about Bickman’s work from my lodger, who himself took this course as a graduate student and raved to me about the experience.) Bickman’s discussion of this course is profound for its honesty: he explains the many stumbles he and his TA teams experienced along the way, and he explores carefully the ways they arrived at fixes, some of which worked better than others. This chunk of the chapter is a window on an exceptional, committed, activist teacher discovering new insights into his own teaching practice on one hand, and into the ways in which undergraduates learn, engage with, and inhabit literary texts on the other. It is both riveting and humbling to read.

In this final chapter Bickman is frank about the limited power of lecturing (“I blush to say it, but I was never tired or bored by my own lectures. And yet I know I cannot keep my mind from wandering after about a half hour of someone else’s lecture, no matter how good it is” [154]); about the value of reader response theory as a tool for empowering students (although, as he notes, that theory is often let down by its abstractions, imagining “the ideal reader” rather than trying to encounter real ones [153]); and about the value of writing before and during class time as key to students’ learning processes (“As we push our vague, fuzzy thoughts to precision, we find the very act of writing makes us articulate things we didn’t know we knew” [155]). In effect, he ends the book by mobilising his earlier, transcendental history, whose purpose now comes fully into view: what the transcendentalists have given him, and might by his example give us, is a firm sense of how to enact theory, test and experiment, learn and change as our students do, knowing that it is not our job to impose theory on them, but rather to build it with them.

This afternoon I had a snowy walk with a good friend who is teaching a contemporary critical theory course (a staple of all English Literature programs in North America) for the first time this year. He lamented that he’s found few resources online to help him troubleshoot common problems with teaching high theory to inexperienced undergraduates, and he concluded that it seems the scholars most likely to teach theory are those who tend to be least interested in pedagogy. While I’ve no doubt this is true often enough, Minding American Education suggests that it need not be – that in fact good theory and good teaching make exceptional fellow-travelers.

6

Check out a preview of the book here.

Philosophically,

Kim

 

On #DestinationTheatre (a field trip report)

One thing I’ll say about my life as an academic: it involves a lot of travel, and plenty of that travel is a real pleasure. Two weeks ago I was in London, England, at the school where I used to work, Queen Mary University of London. I was there with my colleague from Western’s new Theatre Studies program, MJ Kidnie, and our student Caitlin Austin. Our mission: to meet with a long list of theatre and performance people, from my gang at QM to folks at Shakespeare’s Globe, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, the Shakespeare Institute and the RSC, with whom we might partner as we build our new experiential learning course, Destination Theatre.

We spent the week in meetings, but we also had a barnstorming time wandering the city with Caity and seeing it through her eyes as though for the first time. (Both MJ and I have lived in London before.) We saw an awful lot of theatre – imagine going to the theatre for work! – from a stunning, gutting, critically acclaimed production of The Oresteia trilogy in the West End, to a gorgeous, moving play about dementia cutting through a family (The Father), to a raunchy, modish Measure for Measure at the always-hopping Young Vic. Above all, though, we laboured as a team: meeting and tweeting (@westernuTheatre) and story boarding, all in the service of imagining what our new course will look like once all the glittering potential is harnessed and the inspiring pieces are slotted into place.

MJ with the London Eye

MJ with the London Eye

Eventually, in winter 2017, Destination Theatre will have its first full outing: 25 students from across the university plus two instructors will jet over to Britain for two full weeks of theatre, workshops, artists’ talks, guest visits to some of the coolest back stages around, and seminars with some of the best performance scholars in country. Their experience will be all the more memorable because of Caity’s contributions during our recent reconnaissance journey; her student’s-eye view proved invaluable to the work of imagining this course’s future shape. She saw things we two mid-career teachers simply could not, and that seeing shifted our thinking in key ways.

Caity at Shakespeare's Globe

Caity at Shakespeare’s Globe

How did we come to bring a student with us to London to help us plan a course? Back in April MJ and I won a grant from Western’s International Curriculum Fund to support journeys to London and New York in order to create partnerships for Destination Theatre. Sometime in late summer, as we were reaching out to colleagues and pricing flights, I got an email from Caity about her upcoming course load. Going into senior year she was a credit short for her Theatre Studies major, and there were no courses on offer that she hadn’t already taken. We started hunting around for alternatives – in media studies, in sociology, you name it – that might fit. She did a load of legwork and presented us with options.

While this was happening, I remembered that Caity would graduate the year before Destination Theatre’s first journey abroad, and that she had been crestfallen last autumn when she found that out. I also remembered what a reliable, thoughtful, mature student (and incredibly hard worker) she was. I talked to MJ: instead of “taking” (or, rather, missing her chance to take) Destination Theatre, could Caity help us to build Destination Theatre? We hatched a plan for a reading course in which Caity would split her time between test-driving some of the readings and assessments we had in the works for DT, and doing internship labour for us. As part of the latter she would join us on the London planning leg, consult with us from her vantage point as a senior undergraduate, and then write a final report for the Theatre Studies Committee. And, of course, in the process she would experience her own London theatre “intensive”, helping us to spot must-haves as well as also-rans for the first cohort in 2017.

We floated the reading course idea to Caity; she was excited and keen – even though the course would without question prove more work for her than an ordinary half-credit. Armed with her enthusiastic interest and commitment to the task, we approached our undergraduate studies chair to formalise the arrangement.

Making the most of every minute: Caity with Falstaff in Stratford-upon-Avon...

Making the most of every minute: Caity with Falstaff in Stratford-upon-Avon…

I won’t lie: despite our faith in Caity and the great-on-paper plan for the work she would do for us in London, MJ and I were a bit skeptical about outcomes. We weren’t sure, going into the journey, that Caity would really be able to tell us anything we would not see for ourselves. After all, course planning is a large part of our jobs, and we are both quite good at it.

Caity, however, quickly proved us wrong.

...and after winning a ticket to The Book of Mormon!

…and after winning a ticket to The Book of Mormon!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

She was an outstanding secretary and third eye in all of our meetings with potential UK partners, a consummate professional as well as a genial participant. Most importantly, however, she consistently reminded us about the crucial differences between what students (and their parents!) will want from the Destination Theatre experience, and what we might value as teachers and administrators. For example: MJ and I focused a lot on costs, and assessed potential student housing with an eye to making the trip as cheap as possible for participants. But Caity reminded us that the cheapest option wouldn’t necessarily be the most attractive one for students: she bet that both students and parents or guardians would prefer to pay a few pounds more per night for secure, on-campus housing at Queen Mary, which would allow students to stay right next door to the spaces they would use for classes while in London.

She also reminded us that students will want to see as much theatre as possible while on the trip, but will also want to be tourists: for many of them, this will be their first journey to the UK. Old Londoners like MJ and me tend to disdain stuff like Madame Tussaud’s or the London Eye (the huge ferris wheel on the South Bank), and of course many university professors have bad allergies to anything that smacks of mass entertainment. But Caity was keen, and thoughtfully so: they might be tacky, sure, she told us – but that does not make tourist attractions less valuable for our purposes. Touristy things, she noted, are as big a part of the experience package we are building as any show is; they will be key to how Destination Theatre exposes students to a new, global city and its hugely diverse theatrical culture.

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In the spring I’m off to New York City to plan the second iteration of Destination Theatre. Caity’s “dry run” will be over by then, and I know I will miss having her along for the ride. Luckily, she spent part of the summer of 2015 in NYC on a short course at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and she knows Manhattan’s theatrical ropes pretty well. You can guarantee I’ll be grilling her for tips before I get on the plane.

 

Still learning all kinds of stuff from students,

Kim

PS: stay tuned for a post by Caity on her experience – coming soon!