Mentorship at mid-career

I’ve had mentorship on the brain lately. Last week, I was at the annual ASTR (American Society for Theatre Research) conference in Washington, D.C.; during the event I took part in not one but two mentoring events. The first was for graduate students, and I participated as a faculty mentor. The second was for mid-career scholars, and I was invited by my colleague (and, in fact, mentor) Tracy C. Davis to sit on the panel that would anchor the event.

I admit I had to blink and read twice when Tracy’s email asking me to take part on the panel came through; I don’t automatically think of myself as senior enough to mentor anyone who identifies as “mid-career”. I think of MYSELF as mid-career! And that’s part of the point, I suspect: at this stage in the game, those of us lucky enough to have won the tenure-job lottery need to take care of one another.

Mentorship

For the mid-career mentorship panel, Tracy asked me to speak briefly about my experience going up for promotion to full professor, something that happened just three years ago. At the time that I was putting my application together I took a sidelong glance at the process here on the blog, in a post about the value of scholarly editing, but it was only in preparing comments for the panel that I really stopped to take stock of what I’d learned going through the promotion process. As a young-ish woman (I was 42 when I earned full) who did not have the slam-dunk, two-monograph, so-called “gold standard” promotion portfolio, I had a slightly tricky time of it, but I persevered.

Why I did, and how I got through it, provided me with valuable lessons in mentorship and support, scholarly responsibility, and self-care that I realized were more than worth sharing.

So I’ll share them again here.

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I googled “getting promoted” and clicked on “images”. I’ve picked a few that I found most inspiring.

First, some quick context. When I returned to Canada from the UK in August 2014 I had written one scholarly monograph (the book that earned me tenure, which I wish every day I could write again, and better!). I’d co-edited four volumes of essays, all of them award winners. I had another edited volume, solo this time, in the pipeline, and I was just completing a short monograph for students, Theatre & Feminism. I’d written many articles and book chapters – what I’d call a solid number for my discipline – and edited two journal issues. I had great teaching notices. And I’d just contributed to the design and founding of my school’s new Theatre Studies program.

Sounds like a lot, right? Except in my department (English Studies) at my school, something was missing: the second full-length scholarly monograph, that chestnut of a “gold standard”. Never mind that my collaborative work had been at once scholarly and pedagogical, not to mention prize-worthy and with extensive reach. And never mind that my lowly book for students would shortly go on to sell more copies than all my other volumes combined. (I even got an advance for it.)

I knew I might be a “risky” case, but I also knew there was enormous value in my scholarly portfolio and in the ways it crosses over into teaching. I also knew that it would be immeasurably valuable to help set a precedent in my department for alternate routes to full, especially for women and minoritized scholars. I was nervous – nobody likes to be told they aren’t good enough, or “not ready yet”, which is what I feared – but I decided to go for it anyway. The years in the UK had been bruising for a long list of reasons, and I was ready for a good shot in the arm, however hard it might be to achieve.

I sat down with my chair at the time, Bryce Traister; Bryce and I had a good chat about the situation, and he offered me unwavering support. He was realistic about possible negative outcomes but never said anything less than: go for it, and I’m behind you.

And that makes lesson #1: find the folks in your corner, both at your university and outside it, in your wider discipline. Locate mentors, locate champions, especially those who currently outrank you. Listen to their advice, and hold fast to their support of you, especially when you doubt yourself.

Round one did not go my way; my department committee felt I needed a contract in hand for the book I was about to write (Theory for Theatre Studies: Space), another mini-monograph for students, in a series I co-edit at Bloomsbury. Heeding Bryce’s advice, I agreed to wait, and then I began to plot.

I sought out another mentor, my longtime friend and colleague Susan Bennett. She helped me map the landscape, and together we brainstormed excellent names for potential external examiners. (At my school, the candidate for promotion offers a list of names to the Dean, who vets and selects final readers.) Because I’d worked with so many of my colleagues on edited books and journal issues over the years, lots of great potential readers had to be ruled out as conflicts of interest; having Susan’s senior, expert eye across the field helped me light on potential examiners I would never have thought of myself.

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Susan was terrific not only in this administrative name-gathering exercise, but also as another supporter, champion, and thoughtful interlocutor about the business of promotion. She reminded me of the value of the work I’d done, but also, more importantly, of the need for and value of women with capacity seeking access to the top academic rank, precisely in order to create precedent and make space for those talented young scholars without traditional academic privilege rising after us.

Every new woman Professor in our field shows another woman they can do it; every woman Professor in our field means another female academic available to review tenure and promotion files elsewhere, to sit on major prize committees, to do crucial senior administrative labour that often impacts the lives of graduate students, contract and junior faculty. Of course that’s not to say all women, or only women, support and champion other women, or that men don’t – not at all. But perspectives matter, lived experience matters; for someone like me to have the influence of a top-ranked academic in a major research university means more people who grew up like me might yet get there, because of the example I can now set, and the heft I can place behind it.

Susan and I both come from non-traditional backgrounds (for example, I was the first person in my family, on either side, to go to college), and as a result her advice to me has always touched on mentorship as a lineage and a responsibility. A lot of her advice over the years I’ve banked and paid forward: from offering holistic, work-life balanced advice and support to graduate students, to making the time to write truly detailed and excellent letters of reference for students and junior colleagues, to bearing in mind the immeasurable value of using my profile to bring others into the spotlight whenever I can.

And thus, lesson #2: don’t think your promotion is only about you. Take up this space now, so you can actively help make space for others.

I got my promotion on that second push forward, and after I got the good news I was invited to review the external letters of recommendation in my file. While one was a touch grumpy about the missing “gold standard”, the other two reflected back to me what I had hoped would emerge from my research statement: that I have chosen – actively and consciously – to edit A LOT, to collaborate often with peers, to work hard at my teaching practice and also to write for students, precisely because those paths are scholastically valuable. They are, and should be counted as, no less “scholarly” than choosing to write exclusively, or primarily, traditional monographs for academic audiences.

(One reviewer made a point of singling out my collaborative ethos as crucial to the next generation of theatre scholars in my community; to be honest, that, more than the promotion itself, was the shot in the arm I needed.)

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What happened after I got promoted? A funny thing. I began to recognize the freedom it brought me: to focus in my research only on projects I truly care about; to continue to advance my skills in collaborating; to spend more time on service to my university; and (maybe above all) to spend more time living the life I’d put on hold for so long.

I have been for as long as I can remember so focused on keeping the “imposter” gremlins at bay that I think I forgot how much of our careers in academia can, at bottom, be about proving ourselves to ourselves. This isn’t inherently a bad thing – it’s a quite human thing, I suspect – but it’s amplified by the hothouse of a walled meritocracy. We’re always scraping and scrapping – or I was, anyway. Going up for full was an important means for me to prove to myself that I was, indeed, worthy of this place, but once I had the achievement in hand, I was surprised at how humbling it turned out to be. It was time for me to refocus, recalibrate; it was time for me to ask myself what I’m actually doing here, not just in my work, but on this earth.

And that’s lesson the last: the path to promotion may be hard work and stressful in the way that all “tests” are, but for that very reason it can be remarkably enlightening – even revelatory.

 

Tactics, Practical and Imagined

Summer is over; time to head back into the classroom – at least in my neck of the woods. Others of you may still be enjoying a much-needed holiday; still others may already be hard at work. Wherever you are in the cycle, though, no doubt you’re wondering where the summer went, and where you’ll find the time to do all the stuff looming up on the horizon.

 

What I did on my summer vacation: glamour shots of the Anglesey coast in northern Wales. Bye, summer…

At the start of last (winter) term I reflected in this space on planning my upcoming semester. I can report that the exercise I trialed and discussed (and which I got from academic coach Jo Van Every) was extremely useful in keeping me organized, on track, and also kind to myself as January slushed into February and slip-slid into March. (If you missed that post, click here.)

This time, I’m offering something different: a list of survival tactics.

Below, you’ll find another bit of swag from my newly-published issue of Research in Drama Education – the full text of a feature I co-authored with Sharon L. Green, Diana Damian Martin, Clara Nizard, Theron Schmidt, and Max Schulman, all of whom participated in the issue-themed roundtable I held (with Diana, Katherine Low, Rebecca Hayes Laughton, and Sylvan Baker) at ASTR last November. Following the text, there’s a link to the published article on the RiDE website, free to the first fifty who click.

This feature is called “Tactics: Practical and Imagined” and it distills in deliberately bite-sized form the core of the issue’s goal: to share with one another proven practical ideas, as well as just-yet-maybe notions, for getting through it all each day – and doing better by ourselves, our colleagues, and our students in the process.

Our collected tactics are personal and may often seem quite small in scope, but rest assured they are in no way designed to let our institutions or their increasingly commercialized cultures off the hook. What they are is realistic in their avowal that it’s often the day-to-day that breaks us – and therefore the day-to-day that needs to be made better as we struggle onward to change the future of our workplaces.

Please enjoy, pass along – and if you want a published copy, but the free download link has stopped working, just email me directly at ksolga@uwo.ca.

Solidarity!

Kim

***

Clara, thinking about care… especially of students.

Step away from commitments to rest. Keep the pot as close as possible to the stove-top (become feminist cooks). Find your ‘equity and diversity crew’. Babysit each other’s kids when away for work. Become a mentor. Pay students in training or cash. Have a citation policy in your research. Recommend books and events. Circulate resources. Go to events together. Put care at the front of your practice. Co-create assignments with students. Design a feedback model when collaborating.  Be wrong. Be Out. Drop-in ‘queer’ as often as possible. Have 1:1 meetings. Facilitate access to support. Be powered by joy. Talk about Weinstein. Discuss larger issues. Work with compassion. Make room for emotions. Be personal. Be reflexive. Experiment with forms. Craft alternative methodologies. Account for feelings. Allow people to enter discussion from a place of feeling. Have an open-door policy. Sit with people when they book mental health appointments. Walk people to their mental health appointments. Archive what you do. Share your archives. Make resources open-access. Build alliances. Curate feminist networks. Pass around tools. Pass around power. Develop feminist ears. Listen for the silence (harassment work). Do not stay in a job that personally damages you. Self-care is warfare. Transform the organisation that employs you. Make banners. Put up posters. Make theory work for you. Theory is a tool. Take theory seriously. Make better tables. Hang laundry outside. Organise Long Tables. Porch-sit.

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Images from our inaugural issue-themed workshop, at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in December 2017, are scattered throughout the published version of this feature; I include a few here. In this one, the brilliant Gary Anderson gives his keynote in his hotel room near Central (for good reason – trust me!).

Sharon, thinking about interdisciplinary collaborations.

How to bring others to the table?

Invite them. Meet them on their turf. Invite them early.

Spend time learning about what matters to them. Gauge their interest first, then invite them to participate in whatever way is meaningful for them (be prepared that this may be different than you expect).

Take someone to coffee and learn about their work and interests; ask them to be involved in something small and low stakes/low prep then use this as an opportunity to gauge continued, more in-depth collaborative interest.

Find and meet staff stakeholder, show them how collaboration/participation with your project will help meet their own goals.

Expect to spend a lot of time learning, cultivating new relationships, and drinking coffee.

Walk across campus and see what life is like from a new point of view.

Cultivate mutually beneficial relationships with both junior and senior colleagues; expect to be challenged, to change course, to learn new stuff.

Attend talks/lectures/events organized by other departments/colleagues, then stay after the talk to meet those colleagues and thank them for the event; do the same for student events.

Send an email note of thanks to a colleague for an event that you particularly enjoyed – tell them why it mattered to you.

Find out where the money is and how to get it to support your work. And when you get it, prioritize paying people for their labour.

Invite stakeholders or potential future collaborators to apply with you for funding a project; ask them how you and your work can also support their goals.

Pay attention to who is sitting at the table with you and who isn’t. Ask yourself how you can shift structures to be more inclusive if you don’t see and hear a diversity of ideas, points of view, and experiences.

Offer something concrete, if possible, to collaborators in return: guest talk in a class, give a backstage tour of an upcoming production, offer coaching a performance-based exercise in a non-performance class, or plan a joint field trip.

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Our amazing student/colleague Rebecca Hayes Laughton, who kept a visual record of the Central symposium for us, December 2017.

Kim, thinking about decolonizing teaching.

Be open and transparent with students at the beginning of each semester about your own goals, about the amount of work teaching is, about how you negotiate its labour – let them see you as a worker, not just a professor.

reconfigure your classroom space a few times in a few different ways so that everyone in the room can experience it physically from another point of view (including yours).

be willing to say you don’t know the answer; be willing to ask everyone to help you try to find the answer.

Invite colleagues to go out for coffee and talk about teaching.

stop colleagues in the hall or drop into colleagues’ office to ask how their classes are going.

visit the teaching centre on your campus to get connected to other colleagues in other disciplines who are interested in the questions you have about teaching.

Offer to speak with your graduate students about teaching issues and challenges, even if they are not your assigned TA.

check in with your graduate students about their wellbeing at key points in the semester.

set limits on the time you will spend on teaching tasks each week (prepping, marking, responding to emails) and try logging these limits in your calendar.

AND: If you feel the urge to bypass these limits, remind yourself that GOOD ENOUGH is good enough!

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One of many visual documents of our labour, December 2017.

Diana, thinking about working across contexts (between academia the wider cultural sector).

share the resources where possible to the benefit of those outside of the institution whose labour is fundamental to its pedagogical and research cultures. place pressure on transparency of pay and be aware that the university upholds hierarchies of knowledge – do not participate in that. work in alliance to change structures that do not foster multiple routes, forms and ways of work of academic practice. invite those who are critical and do not be defensive. circulate resources. be open with students, and do not traffic in narratives that are harmful or reductive. be an ally to colleagues and to students. make space for other ways of working. strive for plurality. share toolkits and knowledge. talk about failures and be accountable. name and make space for collaborators, especially those whose work is outside academia and who often get left out. learn ways and modes of listening; pay attention to where you are. make a case for knowledge-production as a shared endeavour. keep your door open. build alliances. work collectively. unpack affects and how they shape you and others – think about how they might be in the space differently. organise spaces for conversation. share opportunities and share your knowledge about processes, institutional jargon and structures, which are often impenetrable for students, early career researchers, and cultural workers on the outside.

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Rachel Hann claims her space, as Kat Low mugs in the background, December 2017.

Max, asking: how can we use first-year “intro to uni” courses to help reposition or reorient theatre studies (discipline, department, mission) within the institution, and within the community, in a productive way? 

There are inherent skills and capacities within theatre studies that make it an effective and nimble player on campus. It is especially in its practical and “applied” capacities that theatre can work toward larger campus-wide change by providing 1) opportunity and tools for dialogue, 2) general dissemination of information, 3) empathetic and embodied learning. How might we target moments of campus or community gathering as places where those skills (through Boalian exercises, ensemble creation, applied theatre exercises) can be of most use? Rather than focusing on specific courses or creating events in order to enact these practices, what curricular or administrative instances already exist that might benefit from our involvement?

An example. Many universities have a required course for incoming freshmen that act as an introduction to campus life as well as an introduction to some kind of critical thinking that they will use in their college careers. I wonder: how unified are these gateway courses across academia? At my university these courses are primarily team-taught pet projects with intriguing titles. But perhaps there is a way to strategically use these courses as a way of setting standards for discourse on campus.

“Intro-to-uni” classes are often focused on negotiating campus life, along with the development of skills necessary for success at the university more broadly. Imagine, then, a curriculum component or tool focused on embodiment and dialogue that was inserted into all freshman gateway courses? Imagine a group of thirty freshmen exploring concepts of diversity, independence, depression, STEAM vs STEM, and more through Boalian sculpting or curated improvisations.

The eventual (perhaps utopian) idea is that every student on campus will then have engaged in a version of an applied theatre studies curriculum, and developed basic tools of embodiment and observation, as core to their learning alongside standard Socratic dialogue or didactic practice. Perhaps, too, they will discover the power of the former early, and know that it is okay to jump in, make noise, stand up, step back, and breath.

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Theron, imagining the classroom as social practice.

Imagine the classroom as social practice. Consider that this class is not separate from the power relations we study but is an instance of them. Ask everyone to read Jo Freeman’s ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness’. De-invisibilize the structures we are working with and within. Model different ways of thinking, sharing, responding, making decisions. Work in silent collaboration. Take an unguided walk together. Allow five minutes of uninterrupted speech from everyone, not just those used to talking. Cultivate active listening from everyone, not just those used to being quiet. Let silence be equally valued as a form of expression. Take turns demonstrating non-directive leadership, so everyone gets a go. Try out preferential voting systems rather than binary ones. Borrow from histories of consensus-based processes. Remember that ‘formal consensus works best in an atmosphere in which conflict is encouraged, supported, and resolved cooperatively with respect, nonviolence, and creativity’ (www.ic.org/wiki/conflict-consensus/). Adopt principles from Open Space, such as: whoever is here are the right people; or, if you’re not getting or contributing something it is your responsibility to move to a conversation where you are – and if such a conversation doesn’t yet exist then it is up to you to start it. Craft neutral questions, or even try avoiding questions at all. Value the richness of individual experience and non-verbal knowledge. Explore resiliency as an anti-individualist practice. Use terms like ‘anti-racism’, ‘emotional labour’, ‘hidden curriculum’, and ‘intentional community’ so they become part of ordinary conversation.  Don’t mistake any structure for an ideal one, but compare the affordances of each, its inclusions and exclusions, its dramaturgy and its politics.

And then do the same in the department meeting. And then at the university council. When it looks less like a boardroom, it will act less like one, too.

[Read four more bite-size tacticals here. Link not working? Email me!]

 

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

The Work of Experiential Learning

In my last post, about decolonizing my syllabus, I talked about a new class I’m teaching this autumn. Called “Toronto: Culture and Performance”, it’s an experiential learning course where my TA and I accompany our students on five trips to the city to see a wide variety of work, primarily made by theatre companies focused on intercultural labour (that is: on working across difference to embody the city’s proper diversity, as well as to represent that diversity complexly to audience members).

I pitched the class to my department about 18 months ago, and I was thrilled to get the chance to teach it. Better yet, I’m thrilled with the students I’ve got in its first iteration, who are smart, engaged, present, and committed. They come from three different programs across our faculty and their own internal diversity supports exciting class discussion. I’m also truly thrilled with and grateful to my TA, Courtney, who has already proved herself both heroic and indispensable. (Thanks so much, Courtney!)

So all is roses, yes?

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Well, no. There’s a problem. It’s not an insurmountable problem, but it’s one I think we need to talk more about, and soon.

Everyone in the academy wants experiential learning right now, and all the time. It’s something students ask for at university fairs and expos: do you have internships? Can I do an exchange? Is there study-abroad? And with the rise of the cult of “creativity” (something linked to the post-industrial engagement economy), that means profs like me – who both care about our students’ experiences, and want our students to like and appreciate us (in person and, ahem, on the evals) – have our work really cut out for us.

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Labour.

Nobody talks much about the insane amounts of extra labour that go into programming an experiential learning course – labour that is often high-stakes, emotionally amped-up; labour that is often foreign to lecturers not used to, say, organizing massive blocks of group travel or handling large amounts of money as a result.

I had a first taste of this experiential overload when I took 12 students to London for 15 days in the summer of 2017. What seemed an amazing teaching assignment quickly revealed itself to be logistically complicated, and emotionally profoundly draining. Teachers who have never run a study abroad class (and this was me until spring 2017, believe me) assume it’s lots of fun. (Whoa – free international travel!) Sure it is – but also it is not. From curating the students’ experiences, to running their debrief lessons, to arranging for, meeting, hosting, and paying the guest presenters, to protecting students fearful of harm in the big city, to protecting students from themselves (and oh yes, we had this too), it is mostly just appallingly tiring.

I could never, ever have predicted the total mind-body exhaustion I felt upon that course ending – along with, of course, feelings of sorrow at having to say goodbye to an amazing group of young women.

It took me more than a month to recover.

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These feelings of mind-body exhaustion I’m feeling again this autumn. Though the logistics of TO:C&P are nowhere near as complex as the London class, the group is also more than three times as large.

Here’s what I’m responsible for: buying and receiving all the theatre tickets; booking all the buses and liaising with the bus company before each journey; collecting all of the students’ ancillary course fees; ensuring all the students pay those fees; and ensuring all the students get to and from our field trips safely and with every head accounted for.

But wait, there’s more!

Because Toronto is a two-hour-plus drive from Western, we need to leave ahead of our scheduled class time in order to ensure we are comfortably on time for each show. (The course runs Tuesday evenings, as a three-hour block, so that on our field trip days the show IS the class.) This means a handful of students (roughly 10) had conflicts with other classes and commitments in the late afternoon that required sorting. I worked with them on all of these, sometimes negotiating directly with other instructors to ensure students could be accommodated and still remain in both my class and theirs.

And more still!

Because the course was full for most of August, the cap having been doubled in July due to demand, and because 45+ tickets per order is a lot to ask of small theatres, I discovered that I had to book and pay (with the help of my also-heroic colleague in our office, Beth) for most tickets in advance. Naturally, some students dropped the course before the first field trip, and thus owed us nothing; I then realized I was stuck holding their batch of tickets and costs owing. So I now had to unload those tickets to make up the shortfall, lest we run a deficit. (I spent the first two weeks of September anxiously watching the course numbers each morning, praying students would stay with me so I wouldn’t have to do yet more salesmanship/fundraising. By this point, I WAS ALREADY PRETTY TIRED.)

Oh, yes. And of course: I also have to actually teach the course.

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Now I know that the above list is going to sound weird to some of you – for example, those of you in Theatre departments who have a team of staff that assist with this kind of labour for field trips as a routine. It might also sound both odd and grim to those of you with really robust tools in place at your schools to govern how faculty and staff labour is allocated around experientially-driven courses.

But I suspect for others, it will ring painfully true. Because what happened to me was the same thing that happens all the time in the modern university: an instructor gets a cool idea for a great, stimulating course, sets about creating it, and discovers in the process that systems that ought to be in place to support this kind of creative teaching really are not in place, or are not as robust as they need to be, and probably can’t be funded properly anyway.

Often, of course, it takes the front-end labour of running these kinds of courses once or twice before their system-altering needs become clear; then (if you are lucky), your unit innovates to help you out. But just as often, in my experience, you innovate and are told what a good job you’ve done, and are then invited to do it all again, more or less all alone, again.

Welcome back, invisible teaching overload.

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I want to stop here and say that I am very well aware that I am enormously privileged to be able to teach courses like the ones I describe above. In the case of the London course (“Destination Theatre”), I had administrative help from the Student Success Centre on campus, as well as from our international learning team, which funded the course’s development very generously. For TO:C&P, I received monetary support from all of the participating departments, and that allowed me to cut the students’ auxiliary fees almost in half. I also want to acknowledge that I am a salaried and tenured professor and therefore hardly poorly compensated for my labour in any case.

Third, I want to recognize that I’ve had a lot of words of support from different folks around me these last few weeks, and we will certainly be debriefing the class, discussing future best practices, and hopefully implementing at least some of them to streamline the work and take some of the liability out of my hands next time.

But the fact remains: I made an experiential learning course and got dropped into an abyss of labour I had not really expected. Why?

Because we style experiential learning as “fun”, not as “work”.

This is a familiar song in the neoliberal university playbook. Please source and deliver internships! Please create value-added courses with exciting field trip components! Please develop a study-abroad capstone – so cool to go abroad with students! In other words: please take on the extra work “creativity” requires in order that we can be seen to be delivering happy info-sumers primed to make their own mark on the engagement economy, where experience is everything. We will love you, LOVE YOU, for it! Even if the resources we can offer you aren’t really sufficient relative to the work expected of you, and even if there’s no way we can acknowledge in your ordinary workload what an extra lot of logistical, organizational, and emotional labour the course will generate.

Obviously, this is not a problem unique to my university, where, to be honest, though my faculty is cash-strapped to the max, squeezed hard, and in real pain, my chair and my dean really did their best by TO:C&P. Rather, this is a problem of the moment we are in: profs far and wide have become university “entertainers,” curators of exceptional experiences in an economy where the arts is valued hypothetically for its power to undergird a “creative” economy, but is rarely valued monetarily to match. This remains especially true in the arts programs that support some of the most exciting experiential programming on our campuses, where the squeeze from dropping enrolments in the age of STEM-ification has meant fewer resources with which to be ever more spectacular. STEAM success stories aside, we remain poor cousins in flashy costumes, exhausted from all the late-night stitching.

I’m sketching here the link between my current fatigue and a systemic problem that is far too complex to solve in a blog post (as if anything every got solved in a blog post!).

So, what can we do, on the ground, right now?

I’m going to say we can share our stories. We can talk openly, and regularly, and both inside and outside our departments, about the massive amounts of extra work that cool new course I created has made, and for whom. (My TA is doing a lot of the in-course logistics, and I am so, so grateful to her, but that also means she has less time to do pedagogically more thoughtful work, and I’m painfully aware of this.) We can repeat the course’s (fun! but also complicated!) story to the administrators we know. We can say it to our union reps. And we can share it with our students. We can let them know the work behind the glittering curtain is not nothing; we can invite them to press the university, through their student unions, for more support – and for more transparent, easily accessible, visible and equitable support – for experiential learning course development across all units.

Thank goodness I now see, finally, a light at the end of the tunnel. TO:C&P is up and running: the shows are fun and the students terrific, and almost all have paid their fees. I’ve offloaded enough tickets to break us even, more or less. I can breathe again.

But with that fresh air also comes the gratitude of knowing I’m tenured and salaried, not on contract. I can’t imagine the precarity of doing all of this extra work without job security; I can’t imagine finding the courage to speak up about under-resourcing under those circumstances. Which means that the effort we put in now – as securely employed teachers – to draw the labour of the university’s experience economy into the light, and to demand it be better funded, will be of enormous benefit down the line.

Because I bet if I was a contract instructor assigned to this course, I’d really appreciate how much fun it is to teach, too.

I’m going to bed! See ya,

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