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.

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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

On publishing … with students

Here we are, middle of August: the garden is heaving, the dog wilts in the heat, and I struggle to get back to work, scramble to get caught up on all the things that lingered, unimportant and in another world, while I was away this summer. Of course (of course!), that includes preparations for another year’s teaching.

Because this always happens – because I always end up leaving my teaching prep to August, and thus to spurts of freaking out alongside panicked coffee drinking – this past May I spent time reflecting on the year just ended in an effort to give my late summer self a leg up. (If you missed the three linked posts on this topic, start here.) As I now look to the work of prep (immediately!) ahead, I’m really hoping these reflections turn out to be the time and stress-saving gift from my early-summer self that I intended them to be.

It’s like the universe knows where I’m going: last Wednesday, and as if on cue, another gift from last term landed on my doorstep. It was the new issue of Canadian Theatre Review (aptly titled “Performance Futures”!), featuring my performance studies students’ review of the 2014 Nuit Blanche festival in Toronto.

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We traveled to the festival together last September, and when we returned we had a long, thoughtful, provocative, discussion about what we had seen: about our euphoria at the works that drew us in and made us stay, even through the gathering cold of an autumn night; about our disappointment over and mistrust towards commercial displays masquerading as art; about the poverty of installations that tried too hard, and often too superficially, to involve us; and about the ways in which the festival’s capitalist underpinnings are both unavoidable, and yet at times strangely inspirational for artists and spectators alike. Moved by the students’ obvious and profound learning from the field trip, I decided to approach my friend and colleague Paul Halferty, CTR‘s Views and Reviews editor, to see if he might be interested in publishing the class’s writing about Nuit Blanche. He said yes, and our class review project was born.

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(Two fitting memories of Nuit Blanche 2014! Images of AMAZE by Marcos Zotes, and The Screaming Booth by Chélanie Beaudin-Quintin)

Once officially commissioned, we began by talking as a team about how to tackle the work of creating our review. Would we write one piece, or several mini reviews? Would we each take a portion of our shared experiences to write about, and then leave it to me to shape individual reflections into a coherent, flowing whole? Would we work alone, in pairs, or as a group? In the end we chose to work in pairs, with each twosome guided by one of the prompts that shaped our post-fest debrief in class:

  1. What performances most moved me?
  2. Which felt underwhelming to me?
  3. When did I see myself, as a spectator, in the performance frame?

We agreed that each pair would draft about 500 words, then bring that writing to an editorial meeting with me. I’d offer feedback and ask for rewrites; after that second round of work was complete the students would hand their texts back over to me and I would put all three chunks together, alongside a curatorial note in my own voice. During this putting-together phase I would also do some line editing of the students’ work, and then I’d pass it back to them to make any further changes they might like.

(I should note that, because this project was conceived spur-of-the-minute, the students did not receive formal credit for it. However, they did earn significant points for effort above and beyond the call of duty, which factored into their participation grades, and now all have a terrific publishing credit for their CVs.)

Collaborating with my undergraduate students proved a welcome challenge, but a challenge all the same. I quickly realized that I needed to find a way to balance their relative lack of skill in writing for publication against the journal’s need for a polished final product. That meant I was juggling the (important, absolutely central) work of teaching them how to craft their thoughts clearly, concisely and for a wide audience with the work of an editor whose primary job was to ensure consistency of voice and argument. (I have new and profound respect for my colleagues who teach in Writing Studies, part of my home department at Western.) Hardest of all for me, it turns out, was honouring the students’ own words, phrases, and ideas while editing: shaping the whole while tweaking for clarity and grammatical accuracy, I often felt like I was writing over their voices. I wanted to ensure the journal was happy; I also, though, wanted the students to be able to open their copies of the published review and know those words on the page came from them. Making both of these things happen in appropriate measure was tough.

In the end, I think we did a fairly good job of walking this tightrope act. All five students who participated (the class had seven students in total) were committed to the work and happy to take my advice and suggestions at the first draft stage. They responded quickly to my editorial queries, and they all sent their publication contracts back to the press’s administrator on time (NB: most career academics can’t manage that!). They were pros, in other words, and I’m enormously proud of them, and of what we have accomplished with this piece as a team.

I want very much to be able to share the whole review with you on the blog, but I’m currently waiting for advice from the journal’s editors about whether or not I’ll be permitted to do so under the University of Toronto Press’s copyright regulations. As soon as I get a green light (assuming one is forthcoming), I’ll repost the piece here in full. In the meantime, below I’m including a couple of excerpts, as well as two fantastic photos from our favourite 2014 installation, HOLOSCENES. Meanwhile, if anyone wants to read the whole review but does not have access to CTR through their institution’s library or through a private subscription, please just send me an email and I will get you a copy.

Finally, a question for the community: who has worked on publishing projects with undergraduates (or younger students) before? What strategies have worked well to ensure balance across all of the expectations in the mix? What challenges have arisen and how have you handled them? Please do share your thoughts in the comments – this is something I want to do more of and am keen for advice on best practices.

Happy prepping, everybody!

Kim

From “Taking the Measure of Nuit Blanche 2014”

by Caitlin Austin, Kat Dos Santos, Sarah Gilpin, Minji (Rita) Kim, and Jonas Trottier; introduced and curated by Kim Solga

Caitlin Austin and Rita Kim: While doing our online research on the Nuit Blanche website many of us shortlisted HOLOSCENES, and we were, as a group, mesmerized by this performance. It featured an enormous, aquarium-like tank that was constantly filled with or drained of water while within it performers attempted to accomplish such everyday tasks as gathering fruit into a basket or cleaning windows with a squeegee. Light shone through the tank like sunlight through the ocean; the performers’ f lowing garments danced and fell through the rising and falling water. The performance seemed ethereal; it captivated, but it also managed to pose challenging questions: how should we watch and understand its central actions?

Jonas Trottier and Kat Dos Santos: The performers inside the tank acted out simple forms of labour that, in our culture, have negative stigma attached to them: fruit-gathering and windowcleaning are the jobs we associate with the poor and uneducated. As the tank filled with water, however, these tasks took on an otherworldly quality. With the addition of the light and water, the very mundane, even abject, actions that made up this performance were transformed into the dances of angels.

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(Three images of HOLOSCENES, by Lars Jan. The image at the top is by Jackman Chiu. I have not been able to locate photo credits for the two images immediately above.)

Caitlin and Rita: Though the weather was chilly, no one among us dared to walk away from HOLOSCENES. In our discussions later, we found that we shared a feeling that, for some reason, we owed the performers our time, the respect of good spectatorship. Despite the freezing weather and our tired feet, we stood there for close to an hour. We acknowledged that the perpetual action of filling and draining water and the cyclical nature of the performance left us craving a finale. We had hoped for some kind of dramaturgical closure that would give us “permission” to walk away.

Jonas and Kat: Reflecting on what we had seen, some among us expressed concern as to whether HOLOSCENES was problematic in the way it glamourized the work of day labourers. While this performance did “lift” such work up to our view, inviting us to appreciate an underlying beauty in it, it also put forward an image of manual labour that reinforced preconceived ideas and stereotypes. When the water drained from the tank and the performers were left soaked and shivering, HOLOSCENES offered us a firm reminder of why this type of labour remains stigmatised.

Sarah Gilpin: Despite our experiences at HOLOSCENES, it was obvious to us by the end of the night that Nuit Blanche is a consumer-driven event. I paid special attention to how some companies were using the festival as a cynical opportunity to draw crowds into their stores. Lululemon is a good example: outside its Queen Street shop we saw a performance of a woman meditating, apparently for the duration of the night, in a large bubble. The female “actor” was required to remain perfectly still inside her bubble, mirroring a mannequin, while Lululemon’s storefront offered a ready-made frame (Goffman) for the business to lure in customers who obviously intended art, not yoga gear, to be their primary focus of attention. I did some research and discovered that Lululemon’s “bubble” was not a registered Nuit Blanche event; the company clearly chose to use the appeal of the festival to pretend it was offering its customers more than just retail goods for sale. For me, the storefront performance created unease, as it undermined the sincerity of Nuit Blanche’s larger frame. Were we being marketed to at every performance? we began to wonder. Walking past the shop later in the evening, our group discovered that Lululemon didn’t really intend their performance to be credible: though it pretended to be a 12-hour meditation by one individual, by the end of the night there was plainly a different performer in the bubble bearing the Lululemon logo.

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(Ugh! Crass commercialism. Not unexpected, yet disappointing all the same.)

Caitlin and Rita: After reflecting on both the good and the bad of our experiences at Nuit Blanche, we realized that, on the whole, the pieces that depended less on spectators’ scripted “buyin” paradoxically allowed us to interact with them on a more meaningful level, provoking critical engagement that the more obvious participatory events actually shut down. Performances that invited us to do something specific, such as the flashy AMAZE, were less memorable than those more open and ambivalent in their invitation. What stayed with us were the pieces that challenged our ideas about what it means to be an “active” participant at an event like Scotiabank Nuit Blanche and in a “creative city” like Toronto.

On messing up

It’s been a long week. On Tuesday, things went sideways in my Performance Beyond Theatres seminar; on Thursday, I had a rushed, not very good class with my 20th Century Drama students. I’ve not screwed up quite this impressively in a while; luckily, Friday came, and I had some time to think about what went wrong and how to recover.

The Tuesday mess was sort of my fault, and sort of not: our week by week schedule (which I prepared as part of my course outline) indicated a reading by Victor Turner, the famed anthropologist and one of the grandfather figures for Performance Studies. It included title and page numbers from the text we are using, but apparently the page numbers were wrong: the book ordered for my students was a different edition from the book I own, and I used the latter to create the schedule. My bad, as I should have double checked the ordered edition – that’s teacherly due diligence. But the students who read the wrong essay (and that was only a portion of them) also bear a bit of responsibility: the author and title were, after all, clearly listed on the schedule.

Never mind: the larger problem was that even those who had read the assigned paper didn’t really understand it – something I hadn’t accounted for. I’ve never taught this particular essay, and I made a rookie mistake in assuming too much about the students’ capacity to connect the dots and manage the essay’s abstractions. As a result, about half way through the class I realised my prep was suddenly useless. The questions I wanted us to explore required that first we deal with another, more basic question: what the heck is going on? So I threw the prep out, and flew blind.

What else could I do? We needed to make sense of the reading. So we turned to our assigned cultural text for the week (the wedding of Katharine Middleton and Prince William; yes, really, I’m that cool) to help us out. But I was making exercises and questions up on the wing, hoping we could, by class’s end, at least come to some basic understanding of the concepts Turner explores in his essay.

Thursday was much more my fault. It was another classic error: I got super excited about the DVD I was going to show in class (a couple of clips from an avant-garde, recent production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House), and I over-prepped. We would do a “pocket lecture” on naturalist theatre; then my awesome TA, Madison, would offer some thoughts on the “angel in the house” in relation to Ibsen’s character Nora, and then we would watch and discuss the video. That’s a lot for 50 minutes – I know better – but I decided to pretend I had enough time and ignore the likelihood of being rushed. And that did me in.

We got to the clips 15 minutes later than I’d hoped, and by that time the students had been mostly listening to lecture material for the better part of half an hour – a recipe for dulled senses. I played the first clip and posed a basic question (“what do you see?”) and it backfired on me. The first student to raise his hand – a smart and theatre-savvy guy who I knew was challenging himself to speak up in class more often – sidetracked me by expressing resistance to the production’s modern dress and “contemporary cool” approach to the text. His point was a good one – is this a legit interpretation of the text? – and in a different moment in time (without the clock hot on my heels) I could easily have turned it into a truly valuable teachable moment. Instead, I did something I haven’t done in the classroom in about a million years: I got defensive. I insisted we needed to explore the question I had posed – what (literally) did you see? What might the clip be trying to say? – rather than go off-piste right away. The student was gracious about it, but I felt like crap shutting him down.

Thanks to the glories of Friday (a bit of house cleaning; some cycling; some banana bread; some time spent on pleasurable work tasks), I’ve now had a chance to reflect on my week’s hot messes. And I’ve come to this conclusion: Tuesday’s momentary catastrophe (we read the wrong thing! And it TOTALLY makes no sense anyway!) got turned around, and turned into a solid, happy Thursday class, only because I was willing to abandon the prep, go sideways with the class, and start again from where they were starting from. Meanwhile, Thursday in 20th Century Drama went sideways and ultimately (for me, anyway) off the rails because I insisted on remaining tethered to my prep. The fetish I made of My Plan For The Day meant I couldn’t accept my contrarian student’s offering. I left the class feeling annoyed with myself and sad about what might have been.

What’s the lesson? An old one, one I’ve known for a while. We don’t prep to deliver the prep as is – does that ever actually happen? Rather, we prep to prepare ourselves. For whatever might happen. I can’t abandon the plan without solid prep under my feet, but neither can I do what I need to do – inspire students, and let them inspire me – if I let the prep be the boss. Then we’re all just hired hands: not in control of our own paths, our own learning.

This is a lesson I didn’t learn until I was well into my teaching career (and it’s a lesson I’ve discussed before on this blog, in two different contexts) but it’s a lesson I really want to pass on to the grad students reading. Prep is important – but it’s important because it provides confidence and security for you. To give the students your very best, and to reflect their best back to them, you need to let it drop away.

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Chastened,

Kim