It has happened: we’ve cleared into beyond the mid-semester mark of the Fall 2021 semester.
Kim is on the move during her sabbatical. Kelsey is clicking away with in-person teaching in Montreal. And, below, is a round-up of some our favourite pedagogical, performance, and activism articles from around the web.
Editing as Mentorship
Our very own Kim Solga has written a piece for University Affairs on editing as mentorship. As ever, Kim offers a unique, and activist-informed, perspective on how editing can be a collaborative, pedagogical, and yes activist approach for thinking about editing.
Mental Health in Canadian Universities
This week, the Walrus published an in-depth examination of mental health amongst students in Canadian colleges and universities. Written by Simon Lewsen, the piece offers an extended examination of mental and emotional health – and the challenges students face in accessing support – in the academy.
A Letter to a Colleague: Sara Ahmed and Lauren Berlant
Independent feminist scholar Sara Ahmed has long posted to her feminist killjoys blog. In late summer, she wrote a letter and tribute to fellow feminist and theorist Lauren Berlant, who passed away in late June. The letter offers a candid telling of the meaningful, if sometimes complex, nature of relationships forged in and through academia as well as a poignant letter to a colleague.
Experiencing the academy as a trans person
Kim is in the UK right now and was visiting colleagues from the University of Sussex on Thursday when philosopher Kathleen Stock resigned from that school after several weeks of controversy. Stock is a feminist philosopher who argues that allowing trans persons to self-identify their sexual identity will cause irrevocable harm to those born biologically female.
The row (transphobia? academic freedom?) at Sussex that was sparked by Stock’s work is a complex story that has been oversimplified in the media in unhelpful ways, so I won’t link to it here. But wherever you stand in relation to the issues at hand, I was reminded this morning that we all need to continue to pay attention to the material realities of what it means to be trans, as a student but also as staff and faculty, on academic campuses.
I found this great research, undertaken by Stephanie Mckendry and Matson Lawrence of the University of Strathclyde circa 2017: “Improving the experiences of trans and gender diverse staff in higher education” keeps our eyes on the key issue, even while Twitter catches fire with yet another zero-sum argument. Our trans colleagues, after all, aren’t memes or tweets; they are human beings with complex needs that we can all support with just a few simple adjustments to our daily practices.
Top tip: click on the “website” link in last paragraph of Mckendry and Lawrence’s article for many more easy to digest and share resources (like the excellent video embedded above). Great for sending out to colleagues!
Friends, it’s that time again: time for our summer hiatus. Those of you who have been longtime readers know that Kelsey and I have been on a journey these past two years to begin transforming The AC into a community-owned space, one that can reflect more than just the teacherly musings of two White women working in central Canada. That process has been up and down, but 24 months later, we have a plan. We will share more details about that plan as our work evolves, but we will say now that it rests on two principals: turning this space over to a broad range of new voices, and setting those new voices up for success by providing as much material support as we can.
Those two things – ceding space for new voices, and holding that space with proper support so that those voices can stand up and be heard – are essential components of all great pedagogy. I learned this from someone our community of theatre and performance scholars lost on 4 October last year: Dr Catherine Silverstone, Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Queen Mary, University of London.
Although I was *technically* senior to Catherine when we worked together at QM in the early 2010s, I instantly found her to be a teaching mentor. Cat was, simply, the finest teacher I’ve ever known.
It was therefore my honour and privilege to be asked, shortly after Cat’s death, to prepare a tribute to her for Contemporary Theatre Review‘s Backpages section. I knew right away that the tribute had to foreground Cat the teacher, and I knew too that I had to involve her students in its making. In late October we gathered on Zoom, still wet with our tears, to share joyous memories of Cat’s leadership inside and outside the classroom, her remarkable humility and grace, and her exceptional capacity for listening, learning, and making space for and with students (including student-peers like me).
I received the offprints of our finished work yesterday, and it’s my pleasure to share (with permission) the text with folks here on the AC.
Read and remember a remarkable scholar and teacher; think of your own teaching mentors; and remember, too, the hard hard work we’ve all come through, knowing better days will come, and will come soon. See you in September.
– Kim and Kelsey
(To read this in print, or online as a PDF, please visit Contemporary Theatre Review [issue 31, numbers 1-2] via T&F journals here, or via your home library’s holdings.)
Pedagogies of Care: Remembering Catherine Silverstone
By Kim Solga, with support from Mojisola Adebayo, Catriona Fallow, Caoimhe Mader McGuinness, Sarah Mullan, Anna Sereni, Ben Walters, and Joseph Winer
A hot summer evening, and I’m rushing; I’m late for dinner with my new colleague Catherine Silverstone. I should have arrived ten minutes ago, but I misjudged, as usual, the length of my journey, and now I’m running desperately from London Bridge station, rounding at speed onto Bermondsey High Street, panicking as the minutes tick by. What will she think of me, stupidly late for a meal she’s arranged to help orient me to my new gig at Queen Mary? Sweat cleaves to me in the gently waning sunlight as I collide with bins and people along the pavement, finally arriving, panting, out of breath, mortified.
And there she is: sitting quietly at a window open to the breeze, with a glass of wine and her phone, patiently waiting. Instead of even a hint of frustration she offers me the biggest smile, a chair, her open arms. If I’ve inconvenienced her there’s no sign of it; no sign of frustration or bother at all. I’m instantly calmer, and I’m instantly present to her. We begin to chat like old friends, even though we are not that – not yet anyway. But we will be.
This was the Catherine I knew: abundantly generous, consummately professional yet also high-spirited and cheeky, never less than fully human. No detail was too small for Catherine’s attention; all the little things, as she knew, mattered. And so did every student matter because, as Catherine understood, from our students we have so very much to learn. So, when CTR approached me to craft a short remembrance for Catherine, I knew it had to centre her students—as she never failed to do. I’ve shaped the reflections that follow from memories shared by Mojisola Adebayo, Catriona Fallow, Caoimhe Mader McGuinness, Sarah Mullan, Anna Sereni, Ben Walters, and Joseph Winer during a chat on 30 October 2020. My heartfelt thanks to them all.
Many peers knew Catherine as a passionate, eclectic scholar, as at home with Shakespeare as with Derek Jarman. Her students, however, know something more: that for Catherine, there was no hierarchy among the many elements of her labour. All were—as she would turn her favourite phrase, with a glint in her eye—“good times.”
Jarman and Shakespeare were as important to Catherine as the work of preparing quality class materials, of attending (as Director of Teaching and Learning in the School of English and Drama at Queen Mary) to student concerns over water fountains and malfunctioning microwaves, of reading PhD chapters with such care that each sentence might warrant comments or track changes (something lovingly known as “being Silverstoned”). This equivalence was, for Catherine, political: nobody has the energy to interrogate the elitist structures separating “the Bard” from the amazing queer artists who follow if they haven’t had a warm lunch or a proper drink of water. As HE teachers it was our duty to attend to it all.
What’s at Stake?
Ben remembers Catherine asking him this all-important question during a supervision; it resonates with all of us, and “it will never be out of me,” he notes. Catherine’s politics as a queer feminist were everywhere palpable; her firm sense of social justice informed all aspects of her practice as a teacher, a colleague, a scholar and a leader. Anna recalls how important Catherine’s sense of social justice was to her own decision, now, to pursue a career in human rights law; “If Catherine were in another job, she’d be a human rights lawyer!” Mojisola adds. For Catherine, politics was not a position one adopts; it was a practice one lives, folded and leaved into all aspects of being and working. At stake for her was the work of the political, not the glamour of ideology.
Anna and Mojisola remember that nobody was prouder of their queerness, more open about it, and yet for Catherine queerness was never about her, the work of anti-racist justice was never about her. Anna remembers Catherine’s classroom as a safe space in which to “learn to love one’s queerness”; Mojisola honours Catherine as someone with whom, as a Black woman, she felt safe “in terms of race,” someone who never boasted about her allyship: “she just got on with it.” She recalls that Catherine was always first to check her privilege as a white, educated person from a settler colony, always first to put her power to work for those with less.
Mojisola offers a remarkable example of this work in practice. As Director of Teaching and Learning, Catherine realized that a handful of students in the Queen Mary BA Drama program were on track to earn 2:2 degrees, but could do much more with a bit more support; she pulled their names, saw in them the traces of historical underprivilege, did some maths, and made it possible for them to be mentored to better degree outcomes. Quietly, no fuss—but lives were changed forever. Sarah remembers Catherine committing exactly the same graft to the work of TA support: she convened difficult discussions, took flak for the department, set boundaries, offered space to share openly, then made attainable promises around wages and conditions and got proper results for the young people who needed them most. “Doing the boring stuff, paying attention to details, looking at structure,” Mojisola notes, leaves in Catherine’s wake a legacy of what Sarah calls “real, tangible, difficult change.”
Pedagogies of Care
Our conversation, Ben reminds us, keeps coming back to this word: care. Every aspect of Catherine’s work for, and conduct among, her students and peers was infused with a “sense of civic care.” To be Catherine’s student was to encounter someone who was always willing to be vulnerable, because she saw herself as no more nor less than them. She was even more nervous than the MA candidate sat in front of her at interview, happy to share that she, too, found these sorts of formal public situations awkward, uncomfortable. She was someone who listened to your words with mouth slightly open, eyes alert, seeing you, hearing you—but properly. She was someone in whose classroom you knew you needed to be, because what teacher takes such serious interest in the most mundane things, always giving you the benefit of the doubt, listening with infinite patience, knowing she can never understand the circumstances shaping the moment in which you come to her in need?
Anna calls Catherine “powerfully unassuming”: extraordinary in her capacity to elevate our ordinary lives, to lift up tiny details for generous attention, precisely because it’s the little, human things that so affect our capacities to teach and to learn. Catriona, Sarah, and Caoimhe were all Catherine’s PhD supervisees at the same time, and yet, they recall now, they all emerged with independent writing styles, separate senses of scholarly self, because as Catriona puts is, “the way that Catherine shaped you as a scholar was about the way you think.” Mojisola calls this Catherine’s capacity to demonstrate the southern African philosophy of Ubuntu: “Ubuntu means, I am who I am because you are who you are. I am me through you and you are you through me.”
“Perhaps Your Problem Contains its Own Solution”
Catriona parrots this Catherine-ism and we all laugh, delighted for a moment, remembering. And then a pause. What, dearest Catherine, is the solution to this problem, this great loss of ours, our loss of you? There may be only one: to live your legacy as you would have done, with no ego, with firm allyship, with strongest commitment to the most vulnerable among us and also within ourselves.
Mojisola made a list to help us imagine what this solution might look like. Catherine would have loved it (after being embarrassed for a moment to be caught in the spotlight, of course).
Listen without prejudice.
Listen without bias.
Listen without interrupting.
Attend to the detail.
Dig as deep as you can.
Don’t be afraid of boredom. (The boring stuff is what gets the job done.)
Turn the question around.
Wait patiently for the answers.
Accept people. Believe your students. Then they will feel believed in.
Don’t be afraid of the mundane work that is part of dismantling discrimination.
Let your students teach you. Everyone is an expert in their own lives.
A standing ovation from the crowd! So much applause! A dance party (at a safe distance)!
“The Pleva”, as it’s known at Western, is the university’s top achievement in teaching for tenured faculty (there are other prizes for faculty on shorter-term contracts, and pre-tenured faculty – a prize Kim also won in 2009). In this win, Kim joins several other distinguished former winners in her department (English and Writing Studies), one of the most decorated band of teachers on Western’s campus. (Read more about Kim’s win here.)
Being thoroughly herself, though, Kim is wary to do too much horn-tooting. So, rather than fan-girling over Kim’s pedagogical excellence in a post of my own, I decided to interview her to get her most up-to-date teaching reflections.
KELSEY: Teaching as activism has been a central tenet of your pedagogical practice. How has your understanding of teaching as activism evolved in the last five years?
KIM: Great question. When I first used the phrase “the activist classroom” it was 2011, and I was thinking of activism specifically in terms of “activation” – activating students’ imaginations, engagement with big ideas, curiosity; empowering students as informed citizens, helping them to believe in their own value and worth as smart, capable humans.
Today, the popular landscape of “activism” has changed significantly and importantly – this is something I’ve been very aware of as the AC has changed over time, too. And although I’ve never identified as an activist (specifically because public activism takes LOADS of work that I do not do, but which I very much respect and admire), I have come to recognize activist teaching as teaching that, among other things, informs and invites students to think carefully about activist practices in the world at large.
This year has provided a really useful example of what I mean by this. The activism in my teaching over Fall/Winter 2020-21 has manifested as:
a firm commitment to work in decolonizing ways in all of my classes, and to shape my winter-term class, which I talked about in my last post, specifically around Indigenous performance and decolonizing initiatives in Toronto’s performance industries;
a focus on Indigenous and Black anti-racist activism in my fall-term class, Performance Beyond Theatres, which I teach in conjunction with a course in Community Psychology at Western as well as City Studio London;
incorporating information about social movements like Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion, Idle No More, Me Too, and much more into classroom discussions and readings whenever possible;
introducing students to the ways in which scholar-practitioners in applied theatre and performance create work with and for communities in the service of social change every day, and giving students the chance to try their ideas out in practice.
I want to emphasize here that, for me, a lot of this work is about learning as we go, too. Like every settler scholar not steeped in Indigenous studies, I’m learning how to practice decolonial pedagogy, and getting plenty of things wrong. And I’m not trained as an Applied Theatre practitioner, either. So this has been about reading new stuff, talking to colleagues and inviting them to visit the class on Zoom, inviting loads of artists on the front-lines of performance activism to come speak and share work with us, and of course paying everyone properly.
I guess that means the short answer to your question, Kelsey, is: for me today, activist teaching means continuing to be humble about what I don’t know, learning from those who do, putting energy into that learning and making it a transparent process with my students, and sharing all the resources at my disposal (including my university’s money!) to support those for whom activism is not just pedagogy, but hard-won action.
KELSEY: Awards offer opportunities to reflect but also look forward. Where do you envision teaching taking you in the next five years? In what areas are you looking to develop your practice?
KIM: This is, in fact, not the only teaching award I’ve had the honour to receive in the last 12 months; last June I was named one of Western’s new Experiential Learning Innovation Scholars. That’s a project-based prize, and it’s going to fund a new cross-faculty course I’m cooking up called Building A Creative Campus.
The class pivots around the core Performance Studies concept that “performance” as we study it is interdisciplinary, and PS is the fulcrum around which the gathering and cross-hatching of new ideas in a range of fields can pivot. (Natalie Alvarez talks about this brilliantly in the interview she gave for my 2019 and 2020 publications on theatre and performance in the neoliberal university; read it here.) The class will feature 15-20 undergraduates from up to 8 faculties at Western engaging in a fall term of exploration with guest speakers from medicine to social work to engineering to policing, followed by a winter term Community-Engaged Learning (CEL) placement in our community of London-Middlesex County, Ontario. I’m working on it with my colleagues Sandra Smeltzer (a media and CEL scholar) and Mary Daley (a math guy who is also a data scientist and a musician).
That project is a full-on teaching-research commitment, and it’s got a very steep learning curve attached. I’m already discovering how to build large-scale mixed-methods surveys as part of my pre-assessment work, and in the fall Sandy and I (along with two grad students and two undergrad researchers) will be running focus group discussions with stakeholders from all across our campus. The course will be built in 2022 and run in 2023; while it runs, I’ll be coordinating it, and also helping to measure our qualitative data. (Everyone in the class will be a research subject. I get a headache thinking about the ethics applications I’m going to be filling out!!)
Over the next 5 years, then, I expect to learn a lot about best practices in teaching research (and to contribute my own learning to those!), to work a lot more collaboratively with both peers and students on teaching projects, and also to gain a crash course, thanks to Sandy, in quality CEL pedagogy. She’s researching (among other things) CEL and mental health, and that’s a really exciting and important avenue of pursuit.
KELSEY: Who or what is inspiring your pedagogical thinking right now?
KIM: As the above suggests, my terrific teaching peers and students inspire me! But apart from that (which has always been the case), I’m doing a lot of non-academic reading.
I’m investing in bedside memoirs: I recently read a new biography of Hannah Arendt, On Love And Tyranny by Ann Heberlein; there’s Maggie O’Farrell’s memoir I Am I Am I Am waiting for me when my current book is done; and I just ordered The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, which I somehow missed when it was released. I find the combination of thoughtful argument and accessible prose, plus the strategy of storytelling as critical engagement, not only moving but also an important reminder that positivist, Eurocentric, jargon-filled argument-building is not the only way to say the things and sound smart while saying them.
I take these ideas into my classrooms when I explain to my students that creative essays are welcome, and then help them visualize what that might look like; I also use these ideas to remind me, and them, that storytelling – critical thinking embedded in worlding narratives – is the method practiced by many of the Indigenous scholars and artists I admire, and exposing students to these methodologies (and their attendant worldviews) is urgent work.
Personally, though, my memoir obsession is also selfish: I’ve been thinking for a while now about writing one of my own, and I want to learn how. I want to tell the story of my background, of becoming a professor after being the first person in my entire family to go to college. I think it will be a teaching memoir too, at least partly, because the story of my growing into my career is all about the amazing, supportive teachers I had along the way.
KELSEY: What are the most pressing questions for post-secondary teaching as we brave the COVID-19 pandemic in spring 2021?
KIM: I am excited to report that I’m about to go on sabbatical, so I don’t care! BWAHAHAHAHA!
No, seriously. Joking aside, I think every one of us who is burned out and 30 seconds from bursting into tears – students, staff, faculty alike – need to take at least a couple of weeks this summer to Just. Stop.
Stop and reflect. What did we learn? About ourselves? Our universities? Each other? Our systems? We need to think about what to keep and what to change. About what to build.
Things I learned include:
office hours/meetings while walking the dog are amazing and refreshing and creative;
I need a new laptop;
developing and sustaining functional movement is way more important than lifting your PR or maxing out your reps (go here to get a clearer picture of what I mean – don’t think I don’t like a nice kettle bell swing!);
more and better technology allows us to innovate in our classrooms, and we need to invest in the tools and the training and the people to support it all, at a structural level;
the climate emergency did not go away, so thinking sustainably in all elements of course design (and when planning conference engagements…) remains urgent;
nothing beats live in person, at least 75% of the time. Performers know it best: face to face generates learning that cannot be replicated on a screen, no matter how hard you try. Let’s keep our new tech, sure – there are lots of times it’s amazing. But let’s never take our in-person interactions for granted ever again.
KELSEY: Totally superfluous question. Academic conferences are largely still online, meaning that Summer 2021 won’t have the typical conference circuits. What are your summer 2021 plans?
KIM: Honestly, gardening! Sitting on my back porch. Walking my dog and riding my bike. This may be the first summer in history I don’t have to travel – can’t go anywhere! – so I’m going to embrace it. All summers, truly, should start with us giving ourselves a nice break.
Today on the AC we are proud to share reflections by Cate Creede, a Toronto-based social scientist and core contributor at Fit is a Feminist Issue. Cate and Kim sweat it out together many mornings over Zoom, with a fantastic trainer and coach called Alex whom Cate works with IRL.
Below, Cate synthesizes the valuable, transferable lessons about student-centred online teaching that Alex models every day. For the AC team (Kim and Kelsey), these thoughts resonate deeply as we think about planning summer and fall classes online, and as we try to figure out how to empower and hold space for the young people in our lives in an inclusive, access-forward, feminist way.
Guest Author, Cate Creede
Like everyone else in the world, my life is suddenly filtered through a screen, including my work as a strategy facilitator, leadership and life coach and educator. And like everyone who’s had to translate relational practice to a mediated environment, I’ve found it challenging – and a site of constant learning for myself.
One of my most fruitful sources about learning how to be a good online teacher and facilitator is my experience as a learner with my fitness coach. Since the lockdown began, I’ve been working out almost every day with Alex Boross-Harmer, who was my real life coach and trainer in the Before Times. She’s figured out how to translate her already-excellent teaching to an online environment – and in doing so, has reminded me again what good teaching is, both in one-on-one environments and in her classes.
Cate, with her trainer Alex Boross-Harmer, in the background
A few months ago, I was trying to figure out why Alex is such a powerful presence, compared to so many other teachers and coaches I’ve had in my life. With other coaches in small group fitness classes, I often find myself feeling inept, or like I can’t quite get the form right, or I’m hopelessly clumsy. It’s hard to articulate, but with many other coaches, even when they do and say all the “right” things, I can feel held back in a way. It’s not something specific like being adjusted, or told I should stay at a lower weight to focus on form, or lack of encouragement. Other coaches can do all those things “right,” and it’s fine … I can get a good workout, have a fun class. But what Alex does makes me feel simultaneously supported, challenged, encouraged, and stronger than I’ve ever felt in my life.
As I’ve been a learner in her virtual space during the pandemic, I’ve identified a few of the specific things she does that generate this empowerment for me.
She creates safety by modeling vulnerability and authenticity herself;
She uses whatever technology is available (in person or virtual) to create a playful environment that is conducive to exploring;
She intuitively identifies our individual “zones of proximal development” (Vygotsky) and encourages us to work in those edges;
She demonstrates her extensive knowledge through practical application (she was in grad school for kinesiology before she turned to coaching);
She designs and leads classes based on our needs, not her agenda.
What does this actually look like in practice?
A few months ago, Alex told me that her aspiration as a coach was to make a space so her clients feel that the hour spent working out is their best hour in the day. The most critical way she does this is by modeling vulnerability and authenticity.
She does this by checking in about where we are before class starts – sometimes just with a thumbs up/side/down. She has an honest, infectious, joyful energy – but she always makes it okay to dial back, be sad or anxious, or be tired. She assumes we have no equipment, and makes that okay – our bodies and a mat are enough.
Cate, doing a handstand.
She talks about being grateful to be in the space with us, and acknowledges how it improves her own mood. She calls us a team, not a class, and then she does the workouts with us. She looks like a super fit person – and yet openly acknowledges being sweaty or out of breath.
Over the week, our daily “superhero virtual workouts” have a shape: mobility, strength, ramping up, rest, mobility, strength, etc. Every workout has a shape too – mobility, strength, conditioning, stretching – with many options within it. She pays attention to what each of us is doing, watching us closely through the screen, offering modifications, reinforcing form, and encouraging.
As she does the workouts with us, she is honest about where she is tired, where her body is tight or painful, where she needs to cut back on reps or go for the lighter option. Her authenticity (in her genuine, spontaneous reactions and affect) models for us how we can find our own path, trust that we know our own bodies, and it ensures that we have permission to adjust and slow down.
Together, this creates trust and confidence: she holds the space and for us so that we can safely push our own edges.
Which is the second major thing she does: she creates a playful environment that is conducive to exploring.
Cate’s trusty workout companions, excelling at active rest between sets.
When I first met Alex as a teacher, hers was the first class I ever felt inspired to dance in – just because her joy at being in the gym is infectious. (Note: I am not a person naturally given to expressing joy). She talks about workouts as “adult playtime,” and since we’ve been home, she’s built things like handstands and crow pose, and variations on the same, into a more traditional “HIIT” workout format. She can’t help herself from dancing or strict pressing her dog between sets, and she calls attention to how delightful people look when working out with their kids, or playing with their pets. Even though we are mostly on mute, Alex’ interactions and laughing at herself create a sense of playful community that feels mutually supportive.
With her, I am simultaneously fearless and 9 years old, and wise and strong and 55. I will hurl myself upside down in a handstand in the middle of the floor, and I will trust her when she tells me to slow it down. Sometimes we are leaping around, and sometimes we focus deeply on one tiny mobility movement.
It all feels enlivened: this playfulness creates an “enlivened safety” where we can push our own boundaries. Every workout we do with Alex is designed to scaffold us to build confidence at the end of our current capacity and push it just a little further – and then she pays attention to each of us to mark and signal our progress.
As a coach, Alex has an innate understanding of how to work with Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development.” Where she push our edges with weight or equipment in “real life,” in covidspace, she designs workouts that always leave a little room for each of us, independently, to reach for an extra few reps. She finds new ways for us to use our bodies – like rowing movements using just our arms against the floor – that require no equipment but get the job done.
Bags of books sub in for dumbbells as the team do bicep curls.
She notices and names the edge for each of us, intuits that precise moment where, with encouragement and detailed analysis and guidance for our particular bodies, we can take it one step further. She pays attention to the chat box on Zoom and offers a continual stream of modifications if needed. Even while she is doing the movements herself, she is calling out individuals with encouragement or suggestions – “Serena, LOOK at that wall walk!” – and tracking when we’ve done something like a freestanding handstand for the first time (which we can then all celebrate together).
All of this playfulness and presence is backed up by Alex’ ability to translate expertise into practical application. Alex, a trained kinesiologist, has designed our weeks to have a cycle, starting with mobility and strength on Monday, playfulness and strength on Tuesday, conditioning and strength on Wednesday, rest on Thursday, ramping up on Friday and “sweaty Saturday,” followed by another rest day. There is a lot of theory behind the design, but understanding it is less important than the lived experience of feeling that each day feels doable and like “the right thing for today.”
A screenshot of one of Alex’s Covid-19 online workouts
Alex’s workouts have always been shadowed by this kind of impeccable expertise, but in the covidtimes, she does an even more critical translation of theory into practice because she assumes we have zero workout equipment, and works from there. This in turn creates a sense of resourcefulness, in multiple ways – our bodies become our reliable tools, something to know and explore more than ever. We use what’s at hand – like lululemon bags filled with books or cans of soup – to add new options to existing moves. We are all negotiating new existences right now – and the symbol of a bag of books (or, in Kim’s case, a summer tire from the basement!) as a weight reminds us that we have the capacity to mcgyver our lives, to deal with whatever comes, with a little creativity and a little joy.
What all of this adds up to, for me, is that Alex designs and leads classes based on our needs, not her agenda. Clearly, she gets something out of this – she talks about the importance of this community and her gratitude for having the team alongside her – but it never feels like we are doing something because she thinks it would be a fun Instagram challenge or she wants to show off something she is good at. She recognizes that in this extraordinary time, we are in need of movement, in need of care, in need of connection, in need of joy, and in need of reminders that we are strong and resourceful. We do squats and lunges and wallwalks and move our bodies – but the overarching experience is of feeling – for an hour – like we are superheroes who can handle whatever else comes.
Working out in covidtime means pets are part of the process!
Two months ago, I was in the gym lifting heavy things. Now, I can’t imagine trying to lift an actual barbell. Deadlifting or back squats seem to belong to another type of person altogether — “but that was in another country, and besides, the wench is dead,” to retrieve a quote from my long ago undergrad in English. Yet there’s something fitting, RIGHT NOW, about working out by moving a towel around on a slippery floor with our feet, doing step-ups on a kitchen chair, lifting bags of books. “If this is too much, take some things out of your bags,” enjoined Alex as we moved from curls to flies.
That’s how I feel right now. I’m lifting unfamiliar things, every minute, and I need to take some things out of my bags. Integrating this literal metaphor into my workouts – and into my teaching and coaching, too – is reassuring me that I can adjust. I’m not in it alone.
We’re all looking for community. And we’ll all adjust.
Cate Creede, PhD, is a consultant, educator, and coach who lives in Toronto, working mostly in the space of academic healthcare and higher education. She also runs a youth development project in Uganda and writes for the Fit is a Feminist Issue blog. She is aiming for a successful freestanding handstand by the end of the lockdown.
As promised, here is the second half of my chat with Charlotte Canning. Last time, we talked about her (amazing-sounding) grad course and the value of teaching reflection. In the second half of the chat, we delved into public pedagogy, the value of making mistakes, and some of Charlotte’s favourite resources.
KB: What does it mean for you to be a public-facing, activist, teacher?
CC: Until graduate school, my life as a student was all in private schools. So, I didn’t have the public school experience as a young person. Having taught at UT for a very long time now, I am one hundred percent committed to public education. The kinds of diversity of students that we have — not just stuff that we work so hard on like class, race, sexuality, gender but also the experience of first generation students — that’s astonishing to me. It’s not an experience I thought about until I came to a public school.
It forces me to think about important questions: What does it mean to teach and have a public responsibility? What does it mean in terms of being citizens of the state? In terms of access to our work or the kinds of things we should be doing?
Also, because we’re a state institution, we have a relationship to things like public disclosure laws and open records. Most of what we do is findable by the public. Our salaries are public. We have a very specific relationship to the First Amendment [which addresses freedom of speech, religion and assembly] that our colleagues at private schools don’t have. We have a lot of leeway in terms of speech which is really significant. Sometimes, it makes life more difficult but it’s really valuable. Being in a public institution is something of a gift. At times, it can be frustrating, but at the end of the day, thinking about education as a public good is a profound responsibility.
KB: How does your investment in feminism intersect with your pedagogy?
CC: Feminism is where I came from with all of this. I think about identities. Thinking about access and privilege is crucial to me as a teacher. I have a wonderful colleague in the School of Education, Dr. Richard Reddick. We did a video together on diversity statements for faculty. He came out of a school teaching background. When he came to speak to my students we were talking about privilege, and he’s an African American man, and that he always felt like he had it, when it came to diversity and inclusion. He always felt good. He felt focused. Until one day, he was working with a researcher about gender in the classroom. She observed his teaching over a considerable period of time, and she presented these statistics to him that he called on boys more than he called on girls. He was shocked and appalled, and he fixed it right away. In telling that story, what I heard him say to students is: don’t assume that because you’re savvy in one way that you are in all the ways.
I always say, if you set yourself up as the master and authority, then you can only be threatened when you make a mistake. But, since you’re human, the mistake part is inevitable, so you might as well start off with a sense of collaboration and a sense of learning and changing. So, when those things happen you can easily fold them into the experience for the students rather than it being a barrier, or an embarrassment, or having a detrimental impact with your relationship with the students. I don’t know whether that’s deeply feminist, but it feels very feminist to me. Certainly, thinking through how to create as diverse a pool of teachers out in the world as possible is incredibly important to me.
KB: What is the best pedagogy resource that you’ve pointed students towards?
CC: I change it up a lot every year. I have this secret passion for the history of universities. So, one of the things I have students read is Clark Kerr’s The Uses of the University. It gets them thinking about teaching in higher education as something that has a history and a context and isn’t just the way it is because that’s the way it is. I want them to think of it as a construct that evolved in a certain way over time, and that their ability to change or intervene in that construct exists. It didn’t come from the sky.
I also really like James Lang’s Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning. The premise of the book is that it often takes years to make new courses and to create relationships between courses, if you’re ever able to do that at all. So, he asks: What can we do tomorrow to make our classes better? I find that really helpful. It’s changed my teaching.
For example, he presents compelling evidence that small quizzes everyday are a great way to help students with retention and ownership of the material. I used to be against quizzes but the way he lays out the research converted me to the idea that giving students multiple ways to recall things is going to help them learn and retain that knowledge. I return over and over to Paulo Freire and bell hooks. I consult Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia constantly.
KB: Any final thoughts?
CC: The final thing I’d like to share is an exercise I developed a few years ago for my university teaching class. I get intensely nervous every time I do it, yet the students respond well.
I have a midterm. I don’t tell them what the midterm will be. I always say, Just review the materials of your notes and you’ll be fine.
For the “midterm,” they have to draw a scenario from a hat. They read the prompt aloud and then they have one minute to think. Then, they have to start talking. And I take notes while they’re presenting. Then, they take the prompt home and have four or five days to write about it and evaluate what they chose to do in class. It gives them a chance to think through what they would’ve done, if they’d had time to prepare.
The scenarios are always real scenarios that I or someone I know has encountered. They range from “a student says something racist in class” to “at the end of the semester having to leave office hours before seeing all the students after no one has come for all those weeks” to “students who express transphobia to a student whose drugs fall out of their pocket.” So, a huge range of possible scenarios.
After we’ve done the midterm, I tell them that the thing I don’t know how to teach them is that so much of pedagogy is thinking on your feet. As you know from being an actor, or whatever, the more you train on your feet, the more likely you are to do a good job of it. So, they get these scenarios totally randomly.
‘Sure, but can you THINK on your feet?’
The students have all said positive things in class about it. They are usually very anxious at first because they worry about getting it right or wrong. But, I always say that one of the points is that there isn’t an easy or obvious right or wrong. We have to rehearse.
Then, we have a class where we talk about the experience of taking the midterm. I identify for them which of the prompts were ones that actually happened to me, and I talk about how I handled them. I emphasize when I did a good job and when I didn’t. A couple of them were from my first year of teaching, and, in retrospect, while I didn’t do anything wrong, I was not as adept as I would be now.
One of the things I really struggle with teaching teaching is: how do you teach the intangibles? You can teach someone how to structure a syllabus or to think about a lesson plan. But, when you’re live in the room with the students, you need to be able to be adept. So, you can’t just think about the content. You also have to think about how you act in the moment and how that will or won’t be efficacious for learning. I think that’s the hardest thing to teach. So, what I do in the class is try to help them think about the speed bumps or scary moments, so that they know if they don’t get it one hundred percent right, that’s okay. You can come back. You can talk to the students again.