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

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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!]

 

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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

Finding Precious Time! (Pt 2)

In the last post on the blog you will find some off-the-cuff, raw and honest reflections from Lena Simic and Gary Anderson based on the writing exercise I suggested in my 2016 post, “Write. Just Write. And Be Amazed”. Gary and Lena are writing about time: the way it overtakes us, in a job where the line between “work” and “life” is blurry (welcome to academia, friends); the way it is sized and measured, in an economy hell-bent on increasing productivity (sometimes for better, in the form of flex time and work-from-home; often for worse, in the form of job creep and assessment exercises); and the several ways we might do time differently, on our own terms, clawing back hours or days for less productive, potentially more radical and open and community-oriented uses. (Gary and Lena’s Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home aims to do just that, all the time.)

When I asked Gary and Lena if they would write me a guest post, they in return invited me to contribute to a book they are building, called “10”. Together, they suggested, we could reflect on the conundrum of time, from our different perspectives within academia: them as working parents (and Institute co-founders) in Liverpool, me as a single, mid-career scholar at a big research school in Canada. I said immediately I would accept that compelling collaborative challenge.

Here, then, is my first stab at a contribution to Lena and Gary’s offering. And it is, fittingly, about finding time through collaboration. I hope you enjoy it.

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Whenever anyone asks me to sum up the ethos of my teaching, I talk about collaboration: the students and me, working together to make new ideas. I do this, too, when I’m asked to talk about my research: I usually say I am a collaborative scholar, most at home co-writing or editing. I don’t identify as a typical academic: I’m not itching to write another scholarly monograph, and I don’t really like being in the archive or the library all by myself. I even get lonely in my office after everyone else goes home.

Time is a perennial problem for me, the way it is for so many of us: there are not enough hours in the day to do all the things that we need to do in order to fulfil the expectations of our academic jobs. But when I’m alone, time sometimes seems to creep, not rush: that creeping feeling reminds me of how lonely, isolating, and insular the labour of academia can be. I don’t, at those times, feel like I’m in a bobsled tunnel whooshing toward a hard, bumpy finish; I feel like I’m hanging in outer space, frightened about what’s below me. (Not even sure which way is up or down, truth be told.)

There’s a paradox here, I think: I’m at once incredibly harried, rushed all the time, exhausted. And yet at other times I feel suspended in air, rudderless, unsure that anything I do makes any difference. Both of these feelings are, for me, connected to outcome expectations: we must work more/harder/faster to do the job well; we must produce, just produce, more STUFF ANY STUFF to do the job well. Which means both of these things – rushing through time, suspended in time – are connected to feelings of dissatisfaction with my job. Both are connected to the pain of over-worked isolation.

When I feel that suspended-and-drifting feeling, to ward off the terror, I usually jump back into the work, always more work, surrounding me: at those times, I work to insulate myself from breakdown. That means time is also an emotional problem for me: afraid of the stillness, the silence, its loneliness, I seek the race and rush. At least it is familiar. And I have coping mechanisms.

I have just started commuting between my new home in Hamilton, Ontario and my job in London, Ontario. This is the first time in my life my commute to work has been longer than an hour, and dependent on a vehicle. Now, I race to get into the car to race the 85 minutes to my campus office and then I race through the day’s tasks in order to jump back in the car to race home again. Or anyway, sometimes it feels like that.

But what do I feel when I finally get home? I experience a rush of calm, to start. I unpack and undress. I walk the dog, who is thrilled to see me. I shower, I eat dinner. Later, I head up to my home office, which I’ve designed carefully to be as supportive and sustaining an environment as possible. It includes my desk and office cabinet, arranged against a long wall papered in a gorgeous graphic rendition of Charlotte Brontë’s garden. It includes plenty of books, neatly filed on shelves. It includes a chaise and coffee table for reading. It includes my dressing area, too – a place I can unwind as I undress, or as I dress up to reinvent myself. It’s a space of imagination.

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(My office wall/Charlotte’s garden)

As I’ve been writing this I’ve realized that, in my new space, I am at ease more often than not. It is a place I have carved out in order to shape the time I spend there into calmness, and into the kind of productivity that I want to direct my energies toward: public writing, writing for students, collaborative activities with friends and colleagues, and lots of rejuvenating activities for me (cycling and walking my dog and spending time with my good friends nearby).

I have realized, while writing this, that my new home, and especially my new office, could (should) be characterized as a collaborator in the life I am working towards living – the (new) life that prioritizes my needs and well-being first, the new life that makes space and time. (Those are its productivities.)

My commute, come to think of it, may also be a collaborator in this strategy. It’s easy to conceptualize the time that I now spend driving to and from work in another city as wasted or lost or barren time. But from the start I knew I would value that time, somehow – I sensed it would be good time. I knew that, alone on the road, just me and the drive, I would have space to breathe. Time to think. Room to decompress a bit. I asked around for awesome podcasts and loaded a bunch up onto my phone. These are windows on other worlds, lives, and experiences – worlds I otherwise might not have the time to visit or even recognize as a part of my own.

(Sidebar here: Ear Hustle, from Radiotopia, is simply outstanding.)

Maybe my car is now also a space of imagination, then: as I drive, it makes time. Time for me to be by myself, but also time for me to be other to myself. The commute offers me time to do nothing but go home. It offers me an hour and a half to leave the rush that is not sustainable, and to approach the space I am building to be, to become, sustainable.

(Another sidebar: the dog is totally a collaborator, too. You cannot rush a dog with a nose like Emma’s. The sniff takes the time it takes, yo.)

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I began this reflection about time, improbably, by talking about collaboration. What does collaborating with others have to do with time?

First, it transforms work time into social time, community time. Time to share. Time to be alive to otherness, to be outside of ourselves – rather than to be deeply, cruelly sunk into ourselves, the way we are when we are in the race and the rush, preoccupied with the crush on our shoulders.

Second, it makes time to spare: shared work is a load lightened. Yes, collaborative work creates other labours; when you work with someone else, the negotiation process can add to the overall time-to-product (time measured as productivity, maybe). But collaboration also creates a bond, a shared investment – time spent together with another thinking and feeling person, talking and thinking and building ideas. There is a gift in that bond: it is worth far more than the work that emerges.

Finally, I don’t know about you, but I am most proud of the work I have done in my career with others – both colleagues and students. So when I look at that work I think: that was time well spent, in every way – ways that can be measured, but lots of ways that cannot.

I’m still adjusting to my new commute, and to my new home. But I am going to keep thinking about my time in the car as a collaboration, my time in my comfy home office as a collaboration – moves toward sustainability, towards a new conception of how my work life is organized, both spatially and temporally. And I am going to continue prioritizing working with others over working solo – because I’d rather be in this together, with you, than in this spinning space, alone.

Stay warm!

Kim