Decolonizing the syllabus, part 2: so it ain’t perfect, but I am working on it

Back in September I wrote about what I might characterize as my teaching, as well as my personal, goal for F/W 2018-19: to try to decolonize my syllabi as much as possible.

I talked in detail in that post about my brand-new course, “Toronto: Culture and Performance.” That class took a group of 40 students – plus one keen international graduate student auditor, one TA-extraordinaire, and me – to the city down the highways five times over the course of 13 weeks to see five amazing shows. We also read a diverse bunch of authors writing about Toronto’s theatre ecology, held a fantastic workshop with one of the Toronto Star‘s theatre critics, and created some pretty amazing final projects, including several remarkable creative ones.

I just loved that class and cannot wait to teach it again.

One of the reasons I loved it was because I felt, every week, like I was living up to my goal of working against the colonial drift. With the luxury of a totally new prep, a course I had designed entirely from scratch, I could map a landscape that looked as decolonized as I could hope for.

The course began by foregrounding Indigeneity as central to any labour on theatre and performance in a settler-colonial state; it continued by centralizing non-White and non-dominant voices in the majority of the work we read and saw. When we did encounter dominant or “mainstream” voices, we therefore had the tools to ask critical questions about how our expectations about cultural value and theatrical “quality” in Anglophone North America are shaped by the normalization of White, straight, and cis experience.

(I’m particularly proud of a class discussion we held after seeing Anosh Irani’s not-entirely-successful Mumbai + Vancouver-set Men in White at Factory Theatre. That discussion began with a completely reasonable [and predictable] group whinge about stock characters and a perceived lack of nuance, but eventually reached a deep reflection on how genre can be an agent of colonialism. We ended that day by asking why many artists of colour might feel a pressure, or even a need, to tell their stories inside the generic frame of Western realism, aka the “well made play”, even when that frame does not suit their stories.)

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But, of course, not all courses do we get to bake from scratch, right? Some we inherit. Sometimes that inheritance is nimble and exciting. Sometimes it’s a dire mess, but the idea of  renovating it, especially under time pressure, is overwhelming.

Sometimes – and I think this is the worst scenario, personally – the course is FINE but also not the best it could be. You’re aware of this but you’re also exhausted. You *could* do something with it, but you could also leave it – the students will still learn. You’re still a good teacher; you’ll still get them to the questions they need to be asking.

This is especially hard and upsetting when the course is one that you, some time ago, designed from scratch.

I’d been planning, since September, to totally revamp my History of Performance Theory class, a winter term module I began teaching four years ago. This course has needed work for a while, and I’ve known it; it’s littered with Aristotle and The Usual Post-Aristotelian Subjects, it’s way too White, and it’s boring. I’ve struggled with the readings, struggled with finding effective ways to demonstrate the readings in practice, and struggled with setting performance-based assessments that effectively allow the students to enact, and thereby own, the theory.

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Trump and/as Aristotle. Sigh. What role the Dead White Dude in an anti-colonial performance theory syllabus?

Basically, the course is a dumpster fire, from my perspective. But, again: the students have consistently enjoyed it, and probably would do again. Nevertheless, I determined This. Was. The. Year. I would retool it completely! I would start in September!

But then, stuff intervened: personal stuff that had to be prioritized, in the moment, above redoing a winter teaching prep. When late December hit and I’d managed both to ride out that stuff and rest a bit, I realized I only had about a week to totally decolonize that nasty, white-washed pile of teaching poo sitting on the corner of my desk.

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Nope. Still depressing.

What to do? I knew I couldn’t really do anything like a proper job of reorganizing the course in a week. Remarkably, though, it was when I faced down the reality of my shortened time frame that I finally realized how much of a process the decolonizing of this course – really, of ANY existing, kinda-fine-but-not-quite course – needed to be. This was a process I could begin in December 2018 with integrity, but not finish – perhaps not finish for some time. And maybe that’s ok.

So I got to work on the beginning.

First, I asked myself what I wanted a decolonized version of this class to look like. Beyond inviting students to read texts from multiple perspectives across the centuries, what did I want the class to do?

I came up with a list.

  1. The class needs to empower the students, giving them a sense of ownership over the material and their experience of it. (This is especially key in theory classes, which can be intimidating and quickly become divided: some “get it” right away, while others remain confused and feel bad about themselves as a result.)
  2. The class needs not to hierarchize readings, in which the old White guys appear to be “first” or “top” or “most key”.
  3. The class should not be entirely chronological. While some then-to-now is important for understanding globally rich concepts (like “mimesis” and its politics), working by theme rather than temporally means shifting students’ idea of where history “is” and whether or not we, too, are part of history right now.
  4. The class needs to be as much about learning to read theory, and to use it in ways that are fun and relevant, as about “taking in” the “great ideas” of historical thought. In other words: the class needs to take as given that theory is hard but worthwhile, and therefore it’s our shared responsibility to make sense of it as a team.

This list turned out to be a really helpful starting point. It allowed me to make a plan with both my and the students’ needs in mind. (Remarkably, I wonder: do I really always foreground student needs when I plan a class? DO I?) In turn this plan led to me to do three things toward decolonizing the syllabus that I’m feeling good about. It’s still early days, but so far so good.

Here’s what I did:

First, I turned to the question of readings. Back in October, when life things were really starting to hit the fan for me, I re-ordered the textbook I have previously used for this class: Daniel Gerould’s Theatre/Theory/Theatre. It’s imperfect but also just fine, and I figured that, if needed, I could make it work better for me than it had done in the past.

I was right: looking carefully at the table of contents, I realized that, while Gerould prioritizes the Anglo-European tradition, he does include a handful of non-Western sources in the book – enough to make a critical mass if used carefully.

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Professor Gerould’s theatre theory textbook. The introductions remain a highlight for me!

I selected a number of readings that I wanted to see on the course, ranging from Aristotle and Sidney (benchmark Western writers) to Brandi Wilkins Catanese and Jen Harvie (contemporary women writing about the politics of race and labour in performance, respectively). I slotted these into early and later weeks. (Here, the chronology makes sense for me, as Catanese and Harvie will allow us to return to “old” ideas late in the term and chart their contemporary iterations.)

Then, for the weeks in between, I returned to a practice I’ve used in the past (and which Anna Griffith also talks about in her December post on her performance history class). I’d let the students select half of the readings from a list I’d curate (thus offering them security in choice). I picked four weeks for “Students’ Choice” and gathered 12 potential readings for these. These potentials included a deliberately diverse range of authors: all of the non-Western readings in Gerould, plus an Indigenous, female, Toronto-based playwright, an Egyptian-Canadian, male artist from Vancouver, and a prominent feminist performance scholar. These weeks were broadly “themed” (IE: acting theory; theatre and social justice), but beyond that the options ranged from ancient to of-the-moment and everywhere in between.

In our second class of the term, we spent a full hour exploring our reading options in small groups and making selections. In three groups, the students read several pages of four potential texts, debated their relative merits, and then presented their top choices to the class. As I predicted, the students went for majority non-White, non-normative choices in every case – but they did so for a number of reasons (including complementarity, interest in the topic, readability, and more), and not just because I, the teacher, said that would be “good” for them to read “diverse” voices. (It turns out that’s what they wanted to do, in any case!)

So we’ve now got a really rich range of readings – Aristotle; Bharata; Jani Lauzon; Philip Sidney; Li Yu; Jill Dolan; Augusto Boal; Bertolt Brecht; Marcus Youssef; Catanese; and Harvie – in that order. And the readings are majority students’ choice, so the class can feel a sense of ownership over them. My hope is that the challenges the readings will pose will seem, if not more doable, then definitely more worth working on, because of that.

Second, I created a handful of research questions to serve as a lens we can use to approach any text. These are listed in the course description at the top of the syllabus, as well as at the top of the week-by-week schedule. They are:

Who or what is allowed to be represented, and why?

Is this representation “good” for us, and why or why not? What exactly should representation “do”?

Should audiences think, or feel? Enjoy, or learn? Is there a third option?

I’ve told the students that these questions return again and again in performance theory, and that we will encounter a number of responses to them. At the same time, we should be thinking about our own responses to them: who is represented around us now, and how, and to what end? Is this representation “good” for those who are represented? For us? Who decides? Why does it matter?

Having these research questions in place as a baseline means we always have somewhere to go, if things get complicated. Don’t understand why Aristotle keeps changing his mind about whether or not “spectacle” is ok? Ask yourself: who does he think should be allowed to be represented? What does he think the audience is supposed to get out of it? Why might he feel this way? These benchmark questions offer a reading lifeline, while also raising issues that are essential to get on the table if we are going to try to make sense of theory cross-culturally.

Finally, I devised a broad assessment framework: explain, apply, and extend. Actually, I’ve used this framework before, but never as holistically as this year. Rather than just set a task (or a series of tasks) where students need to explain, apply, and extend a piece of theory, I’ve this year turned the framework into a model for our classroom working practice across the term.

At the centre of this model are three 500-word tasks where students will “explain” a theory (very basic, but important – that’s the point), “apply” a different theory (find an example of the theory in practice, from anywhere they like, and talk about it), and “extend” a third theory (push or question its parameters).

To bolster students’ confidence and demonstrate these tasks thoroughly, each week I am organizing my class prep into three roughly 1-hour chunks, one devoted to each of the tasks for the theory up that week.

Because the “explain” and “extend” portions of this work are likely to feature a lot of me talking, I’ve decided the “apply” portion of each week should be driven by the class. Students are invited to post rough-and-ready demonstrations of the theory in practice to our class website by 10pm on Wednesdays, and not to worry about whether or not they’ve got it “right”. Every post, provided it includes an example and a short description of why it was chosen, earns 2% out of a possible 10% for the “online prompt response” assessment. So making five honest attempts to “apply” a theory earns full marks, because the point of this assessment is not to “get it,” but to contribute to our class discussion in a fulsome way. (Note: this assessment is not the same as the “apply” task I note above. It’s meant to be low-stakes practice for it.)

(One student’s clever “apply” post to our class website last week: Rose and the Doctor as evidence of what Aristotle means by “the probable.”)

I’ve done other things, too, to help shape a classroom environment that offers students as much ownership over their experience as possible, while also prioritizing typically unheard voices both in the room and in our readings: students will write participation reflections and come talk to me about their participation practice in my office at mid-term; there’s no final exam, but rather a group performance project that will allow students to choose a play (from three options) they want to work on, and select into a performance group based on that choice; we’re already in the habit of moving our classroom furniture each week into configurations that allow for student-centred learning.

I hope to write about these other things in later posts, and I’ll share updates about the class – how it’s feeling for me; how it’s going for the students – during the term too. I don’t pretend this is anywhere near what I’d like it to ultimately be, but I think it’s a good start. I’m also hoping the students will help me to see what needs changing as we go, so that I can keep this particular syllabus-decolonization project in motion.

Meanwhile, stay warm!

Kim

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Tired already? Let Them Teach Each Other! (Trust me. It will be good for you.)

It’s the first week of October, so no denying it any more: school’s back in session. Shit has gotten real.

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I know I’m in the fortunate chair this term, on sabbatical. (Nope, I don’t plan to stop mentioning it anytime soon. Sorry!)

But that doesn’t stop me feeling the autumn vibe through friends, neighbours’ kids, and through the growing chill in the air. Which is why, when the latest Tomorrow’s Professor post, on encouraging students to teach each other, rolled across my desk Monday afternoon, I couldn’t help but notice how ideal it is for just this moment in the term – when stress levels are rising, the thick of the marking and the prep is looming, and the chaos of midterms is starting to glance over the parapet.

The author of this particular post, “Asking Students to Teach: Gardening in the Jungle,” is Tim Murphey, who teaches in the English Department at Kanda University in Japan. It comes from his chapter in the book Innovative Practices in Language Teacher Education (Springer, 2017).

It’s normal for me to get inspired by TP posts throughout the academic year, but it’s not typical for me to base an entire post of my own around one. In this case I’m making an exception, though, because Murphey’s insights and evidence from his teaching experiments echo my own, very positive, anecdotal experiences with different forms of peer teaching in theatre and performance studies classrooms.

I’ve long felt peer teaching to be an essential means of activating deep student learning, especially when it comes to applying and extending complicated theoretical concepts. Put bluntly, students learn way better when they have to explain stuff clearly to each other; it means they have to internalize, vocalize, share, and collaborate – even if they kind of hate doing it in the moment. (And of course they do. Sitting at the back and sort of listening to the prof while actively cruising Facebook or Snapchatting with friends is way easier, duh.)

Murphey’s research concurs with this assessment of peer teaching’s impact on student outcomes, but his article also notes more, and deeper, benefits.

First, he talks about how valuable peer teaching can be for teachers, both in terms of saving us time AND in terms of making us better at our jobs.

Second (and throughout, actually), he focuses on how important the practice of peer teaching is as an ethical, and a democratic, practice – for students, but also for faculty. Everyone benefits, he argues, when we share the hard work of making sense of our world, together.

Which also feels crazy timely to me, ya know?

Herewith, then, a bit more from Murphey, and me, on each of these terrific ideas.

1. Peer teaching helps teachers teach better. It teaches us to give up a bit of control, and to get comfortable with the idea that maybe we don’t know everything and that’s ok. It also encourages us to reduce over-prep and spend our teaching time more wisely – working ideas through in the classroom, in the moment.

Just in time for early October, Murphey opens his introduction with this slightly painful truth:

Too often first time teachers, and even many experienced teachers, work much too hard preparing too much material for their classes to fill the allotted time. I myself confess to over-preparing and planning too many activities and materials.

I’ve also overprepped for years. (I call it “prep creep“.) Worse, I’ve been actively working NOT to over-prep for years, and yet, still, there’s that voice in my head. That voice that says…

You’re going to get to the end of the prep and have no more to say and there will be 10 minutes to go and everyone will look at you and know you suck and are an imposter.

Friends, that voice is wrong. It is an asshole, that voice. Total douchebag.

First, under no circumstances will you ever run out of stuff to say. I’m pretty sure that you got your degrees because you like to talk about your research and stuff, right?

Second – and this is The Great Paradox of Teaching – the more you write stuff down to say it, the easier it is to *actually* run out of stuff to say. The more activities you program for your active classroom, the more rushed everyone will likely feel. You will be anxious. The students will become cross and confused.

Nobody will be happier, or will have learned more, because of the excess stuff on your pages.

Here’s where peer teaching is a genius short-cut to help us get in the habit of more classroom improv, less over-prep. Yes, of course, helping students learn how to teach each other well takes careful set-up, and regular practice. You need to decide what the students will work on figuring out together, and you’ll have to give some thought to how they will get from point A to point B. You’ll need to offer some guidance along the way.

But a lot of that guidance will happen in the moment, and will be dependent on what the students say, and what they find they need as they unpick the problem you’ve set for them. You can’t prep for that; what you need is to develop confidence in your role as a guide. That takes practice in real time, in front of anxious or bored or anticipatory faces. It’s risky. It means being willing to mess up quite a bit. But it gets better and easier with time – it really, really does.

We might think it’s our job to stand up and spit up the knowledge, but that’s a ruse; in fact, our job is to be the expert learner in the room, not the person who has completed the journey of learning.

Which is, of course, the other reason peer teaching is so worthwhile: because it reminds us that we, too, are always on that journey with our students.

2. Peer teaching is just basic democracy. It’s sharing the knowledge and the challenges knowledge poses. It’s getting to the bottom of complicated things.

I don’t know about you, but as I read the headlines these days, I mostly think to myself: these skills, the ones that teach you about not being afraid to think hard, and to confront things that do not make sense, and to talk to other human beings about those things, and to work toward some kind of provisional answers, and then to toss them out and try again, just as hard and without losing heart…

… these skills are the only skills that matter right now.

Murphey quotes from Lee Shulman’s book Teaching as Community Property: Essays on Higher Education (2004, pp 36-7) in his epigraph, and I’ll rehearse the quotation here because it’s remarkable in its clarity and insight on the public and ethical and democratic value of shared teaching:

Learning is least useful when it is private and hidden; it is most powerful when it becomes public and communal. Learning flourishes when we take what we think we know and offer it as community property among fellow learners so that it can be tested, examined, challenged, and improved before we internalize it.

Shulman’s framing of learning as property is exceptionally timely, as the endgame of neoliberal consumption practices loom, warlike, into view. Knowledge can’t be owned; it must be shared. When we try to own insight we produce tyranny, and tyranny is the enemy of further learning, of the freedom to debate, discuss, and disagree.

The only way we can help our students understand this is to share the process of making knowledge with them, again and again, messy though that process might be. We need to model knowledge-sharing practices in our classrooms, urgently, precisely because they seem so very far away these days, when we open Twitter, or click the news links in our Facebook feeds.

And then, once we’ve fumbled through the peer teach, and hit all the roadblocks, and struggled to find the answers, we need to talk with our students about why the messiness of sharing knowledge is a social good, and not a thing to be loathed and feared.

***

My sincere thanks to Tim Murphey for inspiring this post with a very compelling article. Please follow the links embedded above to purchase the two books referenced here, either for yourself or for your school’s library.

Meanwhile, if you use peer teaching practices in your classrooms I’d love to hear about them! Please share in the comments – models are always very welcome.

Kim

 

 

On outcomes

It’s arguably the most boring part of any course syllabus: outcomes. It’s also one of the most controversial; lots of us, I know, don’t want to be hamstrung by committee-sourced course or program objectives, in part because they seem so broad and vague as to do almost no work whatsoever (“to learn to think critically”; “to learn to write effectively”), and in part because a large part of academic freedom is the freedom to determine the course of a class’s journey on our own. That’s a huge responsibility, but it’s also a core part of what it means to teach at university level. No two classes, even those with the same title, ever look the same. The instructor’s idiosyncrasies, along with the strengths, weaknesses, energy, and willingness of the students, make a university classroom experience what it is.

It sounds idyllic – and at its best it is. But when it’s not at its best, well, it can be terrible. For every professor that shapes a student’s future with an inspiring syllabus and a dynamic personality, there’s a professor who takes the scattershot approach, lectures veering onto wild tangents, no course objectives to be found as tethers to student needs or experience. And then there’s the part where students don’t always know what’s expected of them, even in the best of teaching circumstances, other than the non-negotiable: to show up and look like they’re doing something valuable…

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I know that one of the reasons course objectives are controversial for my peers in the arts and humanities is because the requirement to have them is typically imposed from the top down. Governments tell university administrators, who tell faculty, that we need some centralised measures to ensure we’re on track with broader learning goals. Those goals often feed strategic plans, and those plans lie at the heart of the neoliberal university – where some faculties are typically “winners” (typically not A&H…) while others are not.

Objectives and outcomes, in other words, are not politically neutral things: they form one core part of measurement-based education policy, in which academic labour becomes less and less about engaging in creative research and teaching, and more and more about demonstrating the “impact” of research and teaching in order to justify the “handout” of government dollars for higher education / in the name of what used to be understood as a core public good. UGH.

And yet, from a pedagogical perspective, they make lots of sense.

Objectives and outcomes keep university teachers accountable: not (just) to administrators or governments, but more importantly to our students and ourselves. For those of us lucky enough to be empowered to make our own objectives and outcomes, course by course and program by program, they are exceptional planning tools. We get to think deeply about what it is we actually want our students to do in our courses, and we get to then think about how different lessons and assignments might link up with these stated plans.

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I’ve made a point of foregrounding outcomes (what I hope students will end up with) as well as objectives (things we’ll do together to try to get to the outcomes) on my course outlines for a few years now. I learned their value – as I learned the value of a number of things I previously believed both hegemonic and overly centralising – while teaching in England, where the expectation that everyone will offer clear course outcomes has been moot for some time now. I take students through my outcomes and objectives at the start of every term; I highlight a crucial caveat – you can only expect to attain these outcomes if you “take our course seriously” – and then I invite them each to create an outcome (what I call a learning goal) for themselves and add it to their copy of the syllabus.

I try to keep my outcomes front of mind as I plan assignments and even class lessons. But I have to be honest; once I’ve ticked the box of making my lists of objectives and outcomes I often pat myself on the back, and then sort of conveniently forget about them. I trust that I’ve got such good and clear intentions for each class, of course my assignments and lectures and discussion plans will feed constantly into them.

But do they?

Last December I decided to test my capacity to teach to my own stated goals by asking the students in my fall term performance studies class to feed back on how well they felt they had met the course’s outcomes. I did not do this in a survey, or in class; rather, I created a final exam question about it.

That meant the students were required to think fulsomely about both the class’s outcomes and the means by which we tried to get there; they were also asked to consider both when we had and when we had not reached outcomes, and to reflect critically on outcomes-based learning as a process through which they, as students, had traveled.

Here’s the question I posed:

At the outset of our course, Kim offered the following potential “outcomes”:

Students who take our course seriously and commit to our shared labour can expect:

  • To be introduced to a host of contemporary performance theories and practices;
  • To develop the capacity to critique a piece of non-scripted, non-traditional performance;
  • To learn the value and power of collaborative teaching and learning;
  • To practice critical thinking using written text, video, and audio tools;
  • To continue to improve their research, writing, and editing skills;
  • To practice, develop, and improve public presentation skills;
  • To experiment with independent and/or team performance-making;
  • To take some risks, make some mistakes, and have fun!

Did you achieve them? Some more than others? Did you not achieve some? Using “thick description” of key moments in or outside class, talk about how a selection of these outcomes contributed, or not, to your learning in TS2202. You need not talk about all outcomes. You need not be positive about all outcomes! Nuanced, honest self-analysis is welcome.

Seven out of 20 students (a statistically impressive 35%) chose to write on this question. Grades ranged from 36/50 (for a thoughtful reply, but one missing a clear structure or detailed descriptions of learning events), to 48/50 (for a reply that was well structured and well detailed, and full of careful self-reflection). Students were not judged on whether or not they deemed outcomes to have been met or not; I was far more interested in hearing them talk about how, and why, either result may have obtained.

Several students talked about the value of learning about non-traditional forms of performance; one made the point of saying his directorial practice was shifting as a result of our class’s exposure to work far outside the Western dramatic canon. Another noted that non-traditional performance forms required us to explore non-traditional ways of talking about those things, and then commented on the fear, but also the excitement, of engaging in that kind of exploration.

Most students mentioned the power of taking risks and making mistakes (likely because I mess up a lot in class, and never hide it, my students tend to get comfortable with error). One student described a moment early in the semester when they had shared an intimate, taboo piece of personal history, and the positive impact they experienced when I did not judge, but turned that sharing into a teachable moment. Another talked about learning that their mistakes in class could all be “manageable” (probably the most important outcome any university student can take from any class, anywhere!). Still another offered this helpful reflection on the first day of class:

On the very first day when we were asked to act out the syllabus I made a decision to let myself take risks and be silly. I decided to really try to turn off that voice that says ‘oh don’t do that, you’ll look foolish’. … I went away with that quiet voice telling me I was ridiculous but I didn’t listen, and I looked forward to every class that followed.

In general each student selected a range of outcomes to talk about, with some outcomes getting more attention than others across all seven papers. Every single student, however, wrote about the “collaborative teaching and learning” outcome. Some expressed continued anxiety about group work, but also took the time, in the spirit of the question, to think about the positive (if still difficult) experiences of shared labour they’d had – learning to account for others’ perspectives and personalities, learning to deal with clashes of opinion, and learning that sharing and negotiating ideas does not require consensus or group-think to emerge.

My favourite reflection on our collaborative classroom practice was this one:

What was very evident throughout the year was the collaboration between teacher and students. I am currently taking an educational psychology course, and there were a lot of tasks we did throughout the course that are akin to optimal teaching. For example, the first day of class we partnered up to discuss any questions we may have had about the syllabus, known as reciprocal questioning, which encourages a deeper understanding of the material being discussed. This goes for many of our group interactions throughout the semester. You also relinquished some control in the course content by allowing us, in groups, to pick some of the readings. This elevated sense of control, or human agency, in our learning increases motivation and self-efficacy.

The student who wrote this response did something very special for me. They connected my classroom labour to the prevailing pedagogical research, and noted how the collaborative environment I create for my students is geared directly toward an outcome I’ve not yet identified: providing students with the opportunity to build agency, and take ownership over a lifelong learning process. I will be adding that outcome to future syllabi, you can be sure – and crediting the student (whose name I know) in the process.

I’ll be putting an outcomes question on the final exam again; I learned a great deal from it about where my students see the connections between my stated goals and our classroom labours. These connections are sometimes where and what I expect them to be, and sometimes not – which means these answers offer me very useful fodder for future classroom planning. I think I’ll tweak the question next time around, though, to encourage balance: I’d like to hear a) where students met an outcome, and how; b) where they did not, and why; and c) what else we might have done to meet an important potential outcome, stated or not.

Now, I’d love to hear about YOUR outcome labours. What do you do to set objectives and outcomes effectively? How do you test their efficacy? Please leave comments! I also want to thank all of the students in Theatre Studies 2202F (2016) for inspiring me to think more, and more carefully, about how I remain accountable to them, to their peers, and to myself in our shared learning environments.

Kim

Fret less, teach better – and feel better (is it really that easy?)

So it finally happened: I had my first epic fail of the term. Bertolt Brecht and Antonin Artaud were on the roster in Performance Theory this week, and on Tuesday our job was to get some preliminary definitions of their main stuff (“Epic Theatre” and “Theatre of Cruelty”, for those of you who are not already theatre geeks) on the table. We did a brainstorming exercise at the white board, which went fairly well. Then, according to my prep, we were supposed to do this:

Debrief.

Usually, I like a nice debrief. We talk about what we’ve been discussing/writing/sharing on our own/in groups/in pairs, and exciting new insights emerge. I jump around and get exercised about the groovy things the students have discovered; we laugh at my shenanigans, and then we learn.

This week, however, when I looked toward the white board the temperature inside my body suddenly rose a couple of degrees. It may have been that southwestern Ontario is unseasonably warm this week, and the building in which I work is ill equipped to handle autumnal climate fluctuations; or perhaps I had finally succumbed to a combination of Prof Flu and Plane Flu (I was in the UK last week; more on that in my next post). Anyway, the result was the same: blank of blanks.

Somehow, we got through Artaud. But I left Brecht – Brecht! My hero! – on the floor. A big, flat, dialectical dud in the middle of the sweaty room.

Class ended with me asking the students (all of whom are always so game to just go with what comes out of my mouth at any given moment – bless!) to free-write for two minutes in response to the Brecht reading they’d completed. I then ran away to my office and cowered behind the recycling bin for a bit, weeping. The pressure immediately to dive into my prep for Thursday and re-write ALL OF IT was overwhelming. But I resisted.

I’ve written before on the blog about epic classroom fails, and about the power of just throwing the damn prep away in order to improvise in the moment. I’ve also been concerned recently with “prep creep,” and with it my looming anxiety that I’m spending too much of my (increasingly precious) work time on prep. All of this occurred to me as I cringed at the memory of Tuesday afternoon.

There was a time when I would absolutely, without question, have gone home and rewritten the heck out of Thursday’s prep – anything to give myself the impression that I was “ready” to “fix” the problems that had arisen on Tuesday. Instead, this week – mindful of my crazy workload, of the power of prep creep, and of the fact that much of what went wrong on Tuesday had exactly nothing to do with my preparedness, and everything to do with what I was feeling (exhausted; a bit sick) – I simply said: fuck it.

I reminded myself: Thursday’s class is already pretty well planned. I’m going to forget about this one, bad day; I’m going to go back on Thursday and regroup; I’m going to do a version of what I’ve already planned, and it’s going to be Just Fine.

And here’s the shocker: it WAS fine!

I arrived to class Thursday afternoon and asked the students to share what they’d written at the end of Tuesday’s class. There was some really good material on offer, and we chatted for a bit about the ins and outs of Brecht’s theory. Then, I turned back to my prep, which called for us to watch two very different performances…

(Buffy is SO BRECHT. No, really.)

(Societas Raffaello Sanzio… freaking everybody out, but in a good way)

… and then to connect them to Brecht and Artaud, respectively. The students responded to the performances with enthusiasm, disquiet, and real verve. I trusted myself in the moment to make the connections I already knew were there, and to speak with passion about two theatre practitioners with whose work I’m well familiar. In short, I trusted the students, and I trusted me too. I glanced a few times at my prep document (of course I did!) but mostly I went off-piste, letting the students’ reactions guide our discussion. And it was absolutely fine. It was more than fine, in fact: we had a terrific class.

Prep is the thief of time: it is necessary, of course – but it’s also so, so easy to delude ourselves, on really bad days, into thinking that more and more prep will make a better and better class next time out. But will it? Is that “better” class really better for the students in the room, or does it just appear to be better from the perspective of the struggling teacher who strives to regain control over his or her feelings about the class, about how things are going?

This week I decided to wing it: partly out of desperation, and partly out of a small confidence that I knew my stuff well enough to get away with winging it. In the process, I realised that I need to trust myself more, full stop. The prep is there as a fail-safe, a backup, but let’s face it: I’m well trained in this work, and I need to be confident that I can communicate it to students – and have compelling conversations with them about it! – without a whole bunch of paperwork, and anxiety, getting in the way.

Why it’s taken so long for me to absorb this fundamental truth I have no idea; I chalk it up to the power of imposter syndrome. But truly, it’s been such a relief to realise, this week, that I did NOT need to do more work to salvage the class; all I needed to do was show up, be present and committed, and bring what I already had on hand to the table.

Gratefully!

Kim

On resisting “prep creep”

So there I was, prepping away last Monday just after lunchtime, racing to get my two classes ready for Tuesday and Thursday, when I got a phone call from my dad. He’d been in a serious car accident (not his fault, and he’s fine), and needed a hand. Off I went.

Two hours later I was home again, relieved dad was also home and dry. I turned back to work: I had one set of prep down and one to go, but I reminded myself that the second set was stuff I’d taught before and that it went well last year. Won’t take long, I said to the dog. We’ll be off for evening walkies in no time.

[Cue time passing]

Emma Jane face!

[Emma waits]

So there I was, sometime around 9:30, still fussing the prep. Honestly, I could not understand it myself. It was no more complicated than a series of exercises I’d devised to help explore the acting theories of Denis Diderot, plus a few discussion points around the film Stage Beauty, which I use to help us make sense of the notion of acting with – and without – our emotions on our sleeves. But somehow I could not finish my plotting, leave well enough alone.

Did I mention that I had imported a good portion of my prep from last year?

What, I want to know, causes us teachers to give in to prep creep? (Def: that weird sensation that I’m just not ready, that if I just futz a bit more [add a few more lines here, directions to the exercise there] I will clearly be so much more prepared for tomorrow, for anything the class may throw.) When, OBVIOUSLY, we know this inner monologue is not true: classes go well or badly quite unexpectedly. The best prep in the world can’t stop the train crash from coming, if the mood in the moment launches us onto the tracks. Similarly, sometimes prep has to go sailing out the window – and then sending it flying is the best decision in the world.

On Tuesday, after a sleep and a think, I decided to ask my colleagues about their preparatory practices. Specifically, I asked two of them – both “senior” mid-career, both decorated teachers, both on my floor in the Arts & Humanities Building – how they prep for classes they have taught before. What’s their strategy? How much time do they allot, and when?

Both had similar responses. Lots of “minor” re-prep is to be expected, and it can take different forms (re-reading notes; re-reading salient chunks of primary text). Some major re-prep is essential if you’re to keep a class fresh. One commented on the importance of making notes on sessions just run in order to tell your future self what rocked and what sucked, thus prompting appropriate levels of re-prep later. (I’ve done this for a while now and I am an advocate, too. At the end of every teaching week I take 15 minutes to make notes in the margins of my prep documents, casual but clear: “this worked because everyone was confused and needed time to process the reading”; “this did not work at all because nobody was interested in this question”; etc.) The other noted that he purposefully tosses out some of his most cherished lecture material each year in order to keep himself on his toes. (WOW! Props.)

Both, however, reminded me (unbeknownst to them) that I may be placing my re-prep eggs in the wrong basket. Fussing over discussion questions and group work exercises is largely a recipe for… well, not much. Energy in the room and dynamics on the day are what determine a successful or unsuccessful class debate; certainly my job as discussion curator requires me to spend time figuring out the different steps in a group exercise and guiding students through it, but more important than my fussing the minor details is getting the major stuff right. And this is where I’ve been falling down lately: I’ve been neglecting my pledge to re-read the primary texts I teach in their entirety as often as possible.

Lately I’ve been skimming my re-reads, or going to the “hot” bits of articles to remind myself of key claims by authors; the devil’s in the details in this case, though, and the fresher a text is in my mind the more likely I am to teach it with verve, energy, and enthusiasm. I reminded myself of this obvious fact last week when I made the time to re-watch the entire production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House that my 20th Century Drama class was studying – even though I’ve seen that production literally half a dozen times at least. Every re-reading or re-viewing – we know this, right? – yields new knowledge, insight, discovery; plus, re-reading plays and poems and novels (as opposed to Word documents containing prep for classes!) is enjoyable, inspiring, even escapist. In other words, labour that might actually be fun.

Why hadn’t I realised this before? Instead of fussing my prep ad nauseum, perhaps I might better invest my time in a full, engaged re-read/re-view of the stuff I’m actually teaching. Sure I might remember the key bits – but then I might not. Worse still, I might have forgotten the tiny, marginal comment by the most marginal of characters that, as it turns out, just about holds the key to everything.

AreYouPrepared

If I start spending my time re-reading rather than (anxiously) re-prepping, I’m betting I can easily find time and energy to run through my previous prep, tweak as needed, and head into class feeling refreshed and excited about the stuff I put on the syllabus in the first place. Because, you know, it’s an enormous pleasure to teach – the opposite of paperwork.

How about you? What’s your prep (and re-prep) strategy? I feel like we don’t talk enough about this issue, especially with/among our junior colleagues who are just starting out and are drowning in (first-round) prep and its attendant anxieties.

So let’s start now.

Kim