An Interview with Our Very Own Kim Solga

AC readers, I have exciting news. Our very own Kim Solga has won the Edward G. Pleva Award for Excellence in Teaching at Western University!

A standing ovation from the crowd! So much applause! A dance party (at a safe distance)!

Happy dancing, for and with Kim!


“The Pleva”, as it’s known at Western, is the university’s top achievement in teaching for tenured faculty (there are other prizes for faculty on shorter-term contracts, and pre-tenured faculty – a prize Kim also won in 2009). In this win, Kim joins several other distinguished former winners in her department (English and Writing Studies), one of the most decorated band of teachers on Western’s campus. (Read more about Kim’s win here.)

Being thoroughly herself, though, Kim is wary to do too much horn-tooting. So, rather than fan-girling over Kim’s pedagogical excellence in a post of my own, I decided to interview her to get her most up-to-date teaching reflections.

Kim in a snap taken for an earlier Western News story about teaching. Due to COVID, no snazzy new snaps were taken of teaching winners this year. Which Kim thinks is JUST FINE.

KELSEY: Teaching as activism has been a central tenet of your pedagogical practice. How has your understanding of teaching as activism evolved in the last five years?

KIM: Great question. When I first used the phrase “the activist classroom” it was 2011, and I was thinking of activism specifically in terms of “activation” – activating students’ imaginations, engagement with big ideas, curiosity; empowering students as informed citizens, helping them to believe in their own value and worth as smart, capable humans.

Today, the popular landscape of “activism” has changed significantly and importantly – this is something I’ve been very aware of as the AC has changed over time, too. And although I’ve never identified as an activist (specifically because public activism takes LOADS of work that I do not do, but which I very much respect and admire), I have come to recognize activist teaching as teaching that, among other things, informs and invites students to think carefully about activist practices in the world at large.

This year has provided a really useful example of what I mean by this. The activism in my teaching over Fall/Winter 2020-21 has manifested as:

  • a firm commitment to work in decolonizing ways in all of my classes, and to shape my winter-term class, which I talked about in my last post, specifically around Indigenous performance and decolonizing initiatives in Toronto’s performance industries;
  • a focus on Indigenous and Black anti-racist activism in my fall-term class, Performance Beyond Theatres, which I teach in conjunction with a course in Community Psychology at Western as well as City Studio London;
  • incorporating information about social movements like Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion, Idle No More, Me Too, and much more into classroom discussions and readings whenever possible;
  • introducing students to the ways in which scholar-practitioners in applied theatre and performance create work with and for communities in the service of social change every day, and giving students the chance to try their ideas out in practice.

I want to emphasize here that, for me, a lot of this work is about learning as we go, too. Like every settler scholar not steeped in Indigenous studies, I’m learning how to practice decolonial pedagogy, and getting plenty of things wrong. And I’m not trained as an Applied Theatre practitioner, either. So this has been about reading new stuff, talking to colleagues and inviting them to visit the class on Zoom, inviting loads of artists on the front-lines of performance activism to come speak and share work with us, and of course paying everyone properly.

I guess that means the short answer to your question, Kelsey, is: for me today, activist teaching means continuing to be humble about what I don’t know, learning from those who do, putting energy into that learning and making it a transparent process with my students, and sharing all the resources at my disposal (including my university’s money!) to support those for whom activism is not just pedagogy, but hard-won action.

The cover of Kim’s 2011 issue of Canadian Theatre Review: The AC is born!

KELSEY: Awards offer opportunities to reflect but also look forward. Where do you envision teaching taking you in the next five years? In what areas are you looking to develop your practice?

KIM: This is, in fact, not the only teaching award I’ve had the honour to receive in the last 12 months; last June I was named one of Western’s new Experiential Learning Innovation Scholars. That’s a project-based prize, and it’s going to fund a new cross-faculty course I’m cooking up called Building A Creative Campus.

The class pivots around the core Performance Studies concept that “performance” as we study it is interdisciplinary, and PS is the fulcrum around which the gathering and cross-hatching of new ideas in a range of fields can pivot. (Natalie Alvarez talks about this brilliantly in the interview she gave for my 2019 and 2020 publications on theatre and performance in the neoliberal university; read it here.) The class will feature 15-20 undergraduates from up to 8 faculties at Western engaging in a fall term of exploration with guest speakers from medicine to social work to engineering to policing, followed by a winter term Community-Engaged Learning (CEL) placement in our community of London-Middlesex County, Ontario. I’m working on it with my colleagues Sandra Smeltzer (a media and CEL scholar) and Mary Daley (a math guy who is also a data scientist and a musician).

That project is a full-on teaching-research commitment, and it’s got a very steep learning curve attached. I’m already discovering how to build large-scale mixed-methods surveys as part of my pre-assessment work, and in the fall Sandy and I (along with two grad students and two undergrad researchers) will be running focus group discussions with stakeholders from all across our campus. The course will be built in 2022 and run in 2023; while it runs, I’ll be coordinating it, and also helping to measure our qualitative data. (Everyone in the class will be a research subject. I get a headache thinking about the ethics applications I’m going to be filling out!!)

Over the next 5 years, then, I expect to learn a lot about best practices in teaching research (and to contribute my own learning to those!), to work a lot more collaboratively with both peers and students on teaching projects, and also to gain a crash course, thanks to Sandy, in quality CEL pedagogy. She’s researching (among other things) CEL and mental health, and that’s a really exciting and important avenue of pursuit.

KELSEY: Who or what is inspiring your pedagogical thinking right now?

KIM: As the above suggests, my terrific teaching peers and students inspire me! But apart from that (which has always been the case), I’m doing a lot of non-academic reading.

I’m investing in bedside memoirs: I recently read a new biography of Hannah Arendt, On Love And Tyranny by Ann Heberlein; there’s Maggie O’Farrell’s memoir I Am I Am I Am waiting for me when my current book is done; and I just ordered The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, which I somehow missed when it was released. I find the combination of thoughtful argument and accessible prose, plus the strategy of storytelling as critical engagement, not only moving but also an important reminder that positivist, Eurocentric, jargon-filled argument-building is not the only way to say the things and sound smart while saying them.

I take these ideas into my classrooms when I explain to my students that creative essays are welcome, and then help them visualize what that might look like; I also use these ideas to remind me, and them, that storytelling – critical thinking embedded in worlding narratives –  is the method practiced by many of the Indigenous scholars and artists I admire, and exposing students to these methodologies (and their attendant worldviews) is urgent work.

Personally, though, my memoir obsession is also selfish: I’ve been thinking for a while now about writing one of my own, and I want to learn how. I want to tell the story of my background, of becoming a professor after being the first person in my entire family to go to college. I think it will be a teaching memoir too, at least partly, because the story of my growing into my career is all about the amazing, supportive teachers I had along the way.

KELSEY: What are the most pressing questions for post-secondary teaching as we brave the COVID-19 pandemic in spring 2021?

KIM: I am excited to report that I’m about to go on sabbatical, so I don’t care! BWAHAHAHAHA!

IF ONLY. Kim’s backyard is very sunny in the mornings, though.

No, seriously. Joking aside, I think every one of us who is burned out and 30 seconds from bursting into tears – students, staff, faculty alike – need to take at least a couple of weeks this summer to Just. Stop.

Stop and reflect. What did we learn? About ourselves? Our universities? Each other? Our systems? We need to think about what to keep and what to change. About what to build.

Things I learned include:

  • office hours/meetings while walking the dog are amazing and refreshing and creative;
  • I need a new laptop;
  • developing and sustaining functional movement is way more important than lifting your PR or maxing out your reps (go here to get a clearer picture of what I mean – don’t think I don’t like a nice kettle bell swing!);
  • more and better technology allows us to innovate in our classrooms, and we need to invest in the tools and the training and the people to support it all, at a structural level;
  • the climate emergency did not go away, so thinking sustainably in all elements of course design (and when planning conference engagements…) remains urgent;
  • nothing beats live in person, at least 75% of the time. Performers know it best: face to face generates learning that cannot be replicated on a screen, no matter how hard you try. Let’s keep our new tech, sure – there are lots of times it’s amazing. But let’s never take our in-person interactions for granted ever again.
Kim’s students learning in the fall air, 2017.

KELSEY: Totally superfluous question. Academic conferences are largely still online, meaning that Summer 2021 won’t have the typical conference circuits. What are your summer 2021 plans?

KIM: Honestly, gardening! Sitting on my back porch. Walking my dog and riding my bike. This may be the first summer in history I don’t have to travel – can’t go anywhere! – so I’m going to embrace it. All summers, truly, should start with us giving ourselves a nice break.

Isolating and Blogging: Interwoven Lessons

As I finish up my winter/spring “Writer-In-Residence” position with The Activist Classroom, Kim asked me to reflect on “what this online writing experience has taught me.” It is a trickier question than I at first thought. I applied for the position in the “Before Times”— pre-Covid-19. I thought it was going to be an engaging reflection on pedagogy during my Postdoctoral Fellowship. A low-key extra task I fit in between making regular trips to Concordia University, attending conferences, writing my book proposal, and forging ahead with my new research: making theatre with elderly people with dementia.

Everything has changed. My whole world, and everyone else’s, has changed.

So it is hard to separate what the online writing experience has taught me, from what the Pandemic experience has taught me or raised for me. So, I will reflect on a few things I have learned through writing online during a pandemic.

Is My Teaching Experience from the Before-Times Relevant?

I feel uncertain, curious, and a little insecure about whether my teaching experience pre-Covid still has relevance. So many conditions have changed for ourselves and our students. The one course I was involved in teaching last term ended early because of Covid-19 restrictions, thus I don’t have personal experience teaching during this time. I watch my children try to learn online, and I can tell you it is HARD. They hate it, in fact.

My most valued learning during the Pandemic has been through actively trying new things. Not sitting and thinking, but doing – engaging in private, domestic performances of sorts. I have hatched ducklings, baked bread, tried new instruments, drawn a series of portraits all for the first time.


I definitely jumped on the Pandemic Baking Bandwagon! (image of my baking products)

I wonder how this can apply to teaching as we move forward with the new world situation. Rather than adapting old ways of doing things, do we need to facilitate students trying things that are completely new? Certainly, we need to keep experimenting and searching for new pedagogical models.

Writing A Blog Post is Harder Than I Thought

I have learned that writing a 1500-word blog post is harder than I thought. Based on how quickly I can whip off an abstract, I thought I would be able to write a post in a day, no problem. But I have found I need longer to ponder. I don’t know if this is due to the challenges of working from home during a pandemic. I start a post and then I need to let the ideas percolate before I return to it another day. I also worry more than I expected about setting the right tone, providing relevant advice, selecting the best images, etc. I have realized that with academic writing (i.e. journal articles and conference papers) I am acclimatized to the expectations. I think about the ideas, but I just know the style. Taking on a new format has made me aware of the skill set I take for granted in more traditional academic writing, and it has given me new respect for authors writing in other formats. It has also made me excited about expanding my writing repertoire.   

Embracing Slowness

More and more during these times, I try to embrace slowness. My friend Ash McAskill, a disability theatre studies scholar and activist, is exploring Slow Theatre Practice and Snail Dramaturgies (see p. 22). I think I am more like a cat than a slow and steady snail. I am languorous for periods of time, then capable of quick bursts of frenzied energy – mostly docile and loving, with the occasional rising instinct to attack.

Meow! (me as a cat)

With no space to be alone, and constantly caring for children, husband, and pets, I simply cannot be fast for long. I’m too overwhelmed. There are too many distractions. Accepting that this is not a personal weakness is HARD. It has meant that I have felt anxious about turning around blog posts quickly (despite Kim’s reassurances). The inequities for women in academia have not only become more apparent than ever to me, they have been enhanced during this pandemic, especially for women who are mothers or caregivers. I am working to value and explore slowness as a theoretical approach and also as an access strategy.

I LOVE Visual Storytelling and Not Everyone Shares This Preference

I have realized that I favour visual storytelling much more than I knew. I LOVE selecting images for my Blog posts! I have spent Isolation producing my first visual art project (@frontline_faces_of_covid19). The current lack of live performances has made me keenly aware that I am drawn to the visual aspects of liveness and theatrical performance, and that I much prefer writing performance analyses to close readings of text. I also discovered (for the first time!!!!) during Isolation that other people literally hear their own voice talking to them inside their head (mind blown!!!). I don’t: I see pictures. I am intensely visual!

This has taught me two things:

First, in future I will explore other forms of “writing” that allow me to capitalize on my strong preference for visual images. This excites me a lot!

Second, I will strive to be more aware of my visual predilection: (a) in my use of metaphors in my writing (wow are they ever visual!); and (b) in my techniques used to convey material in teaching and other live presentations. I realize that I lean toward presenting material in ways that could disadvantage those who are less visual. For example, I need to audio-describe my images more often and better.

Teaching and Writing Help Me Process the World Around Me

I have also become more aware of how teaching and writing in conjunction help me process the world around me. While I theoretically have more time for writing when I am not preparing lessons and teaching, I find writing harder because I am not in conversation with as many people. In particular, without my students I do not have access to nearly as wide a range of generational, cultural, and socioeconomic perspectives. I feel this lack.

GIF of writer’s hand tapping a pencil, unsure what to write.

The Draw of Liveness

I am more certain than ever about the importance, the draw, the communal experience of liveness. I have been watching a fair amount of theatre online ( Canada’s National Arts Centre and Facebook Live, The National Theatre, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre). Online theatre can supplement but, for me, it just does not replace live, in-person performance. Even live-streamed online theatre, in my experience, lacks the feeling of communitas or the moments of utopian performativity that live performance offers.

And yet at the same time, I want to stay close to home. I have no motivation to attend live performance in public spaces at the moment; it scares me. Live theatre has shifted, for me, to at-home performances. It is my children putting on skits, it is playing music as a family, it is my husband reading out loud, it is the opera man walking past my house singing, it is the 7pm communal applause for health care workers with its clapping, cheers, and banging of pots and pans. I am experiencing a return to parlour theatre and community ritual. How can this be incorporated into the theatre and performance studies classroom? I don’t have the answer, but it is something I am pondering.

7pm Applause for Frontliners – View and Soundscape on my Porch

Thanks to Kim for the opportunity to be a guest Writer-in-Residence. I hope some of what I have to say resonates or inspires new thoughts for others.

These are difficult times and will remain such for a while. However, they are also times that bring much potential for shifting gears, re-imagining performances, and learning new approaches to pedagogy. I will continue to try to focus on that. Warm wishes to everyone!

My ducklings hatched!!! (image of 3 black duckings snuggled together)

 

Reflecting on Uncertainty in Uncertain Times

Hello from another week of the odd times with the Activist Classroom. This week I reflect about navigating uncertainty in this, the strangest collective year in recent memory.

The novel coronavirus is a terrible party guest. It came uninvited. It’s wildly unpredictable. And, it’s armed with a thousand bad conversation starters:

What are the government’s plans for re-opening? Are resources reaching society’s most vulnerable members? What protocols will remain in place? How will they be enforced? When will children return to school? Should they return to school? When will retail open? What about the film industry? The fitness industry? What will universities do? Will we ever get theatre back?  What will the “new normal” look like? Are we already in it?

These questions run on loop in my head, in the news, in the endless zoom calls. They are, in fact, an articulation of one of the defining features of the Covid-19 pandemic thus far: uncertainty.

We don’t have all the information, and so we don’t have the answers. And no one else has them either.

1200px-Question_mark_(black).svg

The uncertainty itself isn’t unprecedented. People’s worlds are routinely turned upside-down by innumerable catastrophes and marvels. What’s unprecedented, at least in recent western memory, is that so many people are grappling with a similar set societal uncertainties at the same time.

In these uncertain times, I find myself turning to my favourite thinkers and writers. One of these thinkers is Sara Ahmed. From examining queer orientation to tracking the logic of happiness to researching diversity work and complaint in post secondary institutions, Sara Ahmed frequently begins with the question, “What does X [an orientation toward an idea, the concept of happiness, a commitment] do?”

Ahmed

The cover of Sara Ahmed’s recent book, Living a Feminist Life

As we move through the uncertainty of spring 2020, I find myself drawn to this question.

What is the uncertainty produced by the Covid-19 pandemic doing? More simply, what are the multi-layered (personal, social, political) effects of mass uncertainty?

One day, when I’m feeling intellectually sharper than these early pandemic days, I will probably ask these questions on a broader scale.

Right now, I’m drawn to my personal sphere. So, I asked my mother what she thought about uncertainty and the novel coronavirus.

“It’s the little things,” she told me. By way of example, she explained that she and my father didn’t know how to make a virtual doctor’s appointment.

“Do you want me to look it up for you?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I can look it up myself!” (Admittedly, I walked into that reply). “I’ve just never had to. I don’t know how it works or what to expect. The uncertainty makes you pay attention.”

Indeed.

Since the pandemic response ramped up in Canada in late March, I have felt the novel coronavirus’s call to attention across my life: at the grocery store, in the daily emails from my university, in hours-long phone calls with friends I may not see for a long time.

spotlight2

The Covid-19 pandemic has shone a spotlight on parts of my life. (Also: I chose this image because it’s a theatre stage illuminated by a pair of spots, and I miss theatre stages.)

I have noticed this call to attention in my teaching life, too.

Most folk have now weathered the mid-semester upheavals of the spring outbreaks and institutional closures, but the traditional post-secondary teaching structure has undoubtedly been shaken. As colleges and universities begin to plan for fall 2020 at least partly online, the lasting effects for classrooms — for the entire post-secondary norm — are, well, uncertain.

In terms of teaching, I, like everyone, am curious about all the big questions: Will classes be virtual in Fall 2020? What about Spring 2021? How will this affect teaching in the coming years? But, I find, too, that many more personal questions are floating to the surface:

  • How will I, who so value the “liveness” of both theatre and teaching, adjust to asynchronous virtual teaching methods?
  • How can virtual space prompt me to re-imagine my classrooms in new ways?
  • How will I support students, whose learning conditions and university experience are likely to undergo rapid changes in the months ahead, while also encouraging rigorous, critical engagement with the material we’re meant to be studying?
  • How will I learn from, and remain in touch with, colleagues (without getting bogged down in administration and endless virtual calls)?

My inner coordinator, the part of me that likes to plan and schedule and colour code things, is eager to start answering these questions. And, at some point, she will prevail.

But, for now, I have decided that my pedagogical work is about attunement and inventory: To where am I drawn? What do I turn away from? Where does pedagogical focus lead me? What questions do I return to? 

I am hopeful this work will anchor me – and perhaps, if you choose to borrow it, you – as I navigate the uncertain waters of the months ahead.

 

Pandemic Online Learning: Take-Away Lessons

By Julia Henderson:

Now in week five of isolation, my panic has eased slightly. Until recently, a goal for many of us was to finish up courses in progress by whatever means we could. Some of us have had some profound insights, some of us merely survived. Many of us feel saturated with “top tips” commentaries. So, I sit at my computer again, grappling with what to write that feels meaningful.

I have to admit I am struggling to keep up as my 5-year-old and my 13-year-old are tasked with learning online. They need assistance, support, guidance, and encouragement. It feels disorderly and haphazard. Sometimes this relates to their teachers’ efforts to deliver online curriculum. Other times it is due to our ability (or more accurately, inability) to uptake all the new requirements. How am I supposed to work full-time, revamp my postdoc research to be done without participants, and become the classroom aide to my two children?—never mind also take on the roles of house cleaner, pet keeper, and full-time cook—all jobs I had outside help with before. As I write this, my five-year-old has entered and asked, in tears, if I could PLEASE read him stories.I feel overwhelmed.

Can we just stick with baking and books?
(Photo Credit: Nancy Caldwell, Pandemic Porch Series, @nancy.w.caldwell)

So, in this state, I think ahead to the summer term which will need to be delivered fully online. Since these courses will be virtual from their outset, learners are likely to have higher expectations for slick course delivery. However, many instructors still lack experience teaching online. I keep returning to the question “how can we make teaching meaningful, achievable, as efficient as possible, and not overwhelming to our students and ourselves?” Below, I’d like to offer some thoughts I’ve had and some things I’ve learned from my family’s online experiences so far during lockdown. Thanks to my friend and colleague Ash McAskill, Postdoctoral Fellow at Guelph University, for talking through some of these ideas with me.

DON’T TEACH REQUIRED CONTENT IN REAL TIME

Unlike previous online courses which students opted to enroll in and instructors (usually) chose to teach, now students and teachers are forced to participate in online courses. This brings new considerations. In the past when students chose to take an online course, we could assume they had good online access. Now we cannot make that same assumption. Not everyone has a device available to them at any time of the day. Families are sharing, Wi-Fi is sometimes overloaded and sketchy, some students are trying to do their work on phones. If you want to include optional real-time check-in sessions with your students, by all means do so. One-on-one and small groups work best in my opinion. But for the love of god/goddess do not deliver required learning in real-time online lectures at this time! It causes undue stress for many students.

KEEP IT CHUNKY!

It is way easier to digest course content in smaller chunks. Instead of recording one-hour lectures, prepare 4 or 5 mini-lectures. Instead of assigning lengthy readings, choose shorter ones, or break the long ones into more manageable chunks. Perhaps assign summaries of certain readings instead of the originals. Find ways to design shorter assignments or divide longer ones into distinct tasks. We must keep in mind that many people are no longer able to find lengthy, uninterrupted work blocks.

THINK ABOUT ACCESSIBILITY

My older son is in 8th grade and as such has 8 different courses, and 8 different teachers. Looking at his course content and communications, it is abundantly clear that most of his teachers have little to no training in making online content accessible. First, there is just TOO MUCH TEXT crammed in. The fonts are too small. They often don’t use hyperlinks. Images do not have an alt-text description. The colour combinations of font on background are sometimes difficult to read. My son, who is a straight-A student, finds the online content overwhelming. So, for anyone not used to designing courses online, I would strongly advise two things. First, take a look at some tips on writing for the web. There are simple ways you can adapt your writing to make your materials more approachable/readable. Secondly, look into tips on accessible online course design. Some simple strategies make a big difference to many learners.

If only I could read this font!!!

TEST OUT YOUR TECHNOLOGY!!!

So, my son’s English teacher decided to have a real-time group session online. I’m not sure why, but she combined 4 classes in the one session (that’s A LOT of participants!!). She then asked some students to help her with the technology. Well, I don’t know if it was the boredom of isolation, or the general mischievousness of teenagers, but the students started posting comments and drawing pictures (you can imagine) on the online blackboard, and she didn’t know how to stop it. She eventually just left the session and we got an email the next day beginning with “Well I won’t be trying that again!!!” Although this whole episode was immensely amusing to my son and his classmates, it did not achieve learning of any course content, and I am sure it was humiliating to the teacher (who fortunately had a good sense of humour).

The moral of this story: test out your technologies before using them with your classes. In depth. For real.

HOLD SPACE

Another of my son’s assignments was for students to reflect on some of the things they had learned during isolation. My son came to me rather incensed because the teacher had commented to students that they should avoid being negative and come up with some positive things they had learned. I agree it’s important to think about some of the positive things we have learned during this pandemic (the extent of our over-consumption, how profoundly we affect the environment, how much we are typically over-scheduled, etc.). But insisting on positivity is not productive or healthy; we need to talk about our hurt and fear and dreariness, and we need to try to avoid toxic positivity. As my friend and University of Toronto PhD Candidate Rena Roussin writes,

“Optimism, positivity, and gratitude are all wonderful things. I’m striving to practice them as much as I can . . . But it’s okay to have moments when you just can’t. It’s okay to be sad for a while. It’s okay to take a moment or an hour or a day to grieve for whatever you’re missing right now.”

As instructors, we need to make real efforts to hold space for our students to talk about their experiences of difficulty, anxiety, pain, and grief. If we are going to ask students to reflect on how they feel, we must be prepared to give supportive, empathetic feedback, not simply advise them to be more positive. Experiencing a global pandemic is a form of trauma and it will affect people in different ways to different degrees. It is not our job (or within most of our skill sets!) to become counsellors, but we need to be able to deeply listen even though we are not physically present, and we should be prepared to refer students to counselling services as needed. For many students, remember, it is simply helpful to have a place to express their struggles right now.

DO WE NEED GRADES?

This may be an unpopular opinion but I think we really need to think about what we are grading, how we are grading, and whether we really need grades at this time. If people are showing up right now, that’s a lot. At the very least we need to re-evaluate our usual grading systems, and lighten the burden for ourselves and our students. We need to keep in mind what the real consequences of the grades will be. Are students trying to enter second year or grad school?

IN SUMMARY

Although we are settling into this New Normal, we have to remember that these are trying times with constant undercurrents of instability and stress. The following quote, which has been circulating on social media, spoke to me (the original source eludes me):

“You are not working from home; you are at home during a crisis trying to work.”

We must remain gentle with ourselves and each other, open to new ways of doing things, accepting of resistance, curious, and even sometimes frivolous – just because! In the spirit of frivolity, as an antidote to all the online learning, and at the risk of toxic positivity, to conclude I would like to share the duck eggs I am trying to hatch in my homemade incubator!

Hoping for some ducklings around the middle of May!!!

 

 

Academia and Physical Pain: A Conversation with Sandra Chamberlain-Snider

Well folks, here we are, headed into one of the stranger April long weekends in recent memory.  Wherever you are, we hope you and yours are healthy, sheltered, and well in these strange and tender times.

To ring in the days off, we thought we’d share a post about self-care.

As scholars, we talk a lot about disability, and as teachers, we tend to think about mental health provisions for our students. But, chronic pain sometimes gets lost in the shuffle of hidden disability, if it’s noted at all.

Below, Kelsey and Sandra Chamberlain-Snider, a PhD candidate at the University of Victoria, chat about their experiences with chronic pain.

***

In my work for this blog and in my daily life, I write and talk about dozens of issues related to post secondary instruction and my experiences as an emerging scholar. Pain is rarely one of these topics.

Yet, physical pain has been one of the constants in my scholarly life. I’ve had roaming stiffness and/or pain in multiple areas of my body for years. Officially speaking, I have been diagnosed with a systemic form of arthritis. In reality, things are a bit murkier, and the diagnosis is closer to my rheumatologist’s’ current best guess.

In chatting about my experiences with friends and colleagues, folks have often disclosed that they, too, are quietly navigating on-going challenges related to pain, illness, or injury. (Strange coincidence side-note: Kim and I have EXACTLY the same autoimmune / chronic pain diagnosis.) While I don’t want anyone to experience discomfort, I have often found these conversations heartening: they provide new ideas or resources and remind me that I’m not alone.

So, I thought I would curate such a conversation for this blog.

To do so, I reached out to my friend and colleague, Sandra Chamberlain-Snider – a PhD candidate at the University of Victoria, who, like me was diagnosed with a systemic form of arthritis during her graduate studies.

Sandra

Sandra Chamberlain-Snider

KB: Can you tell me a little about your journey with pain as a PhD student?

SCS: I’d had pain for years but I’m in my middle-fifties. I figured it was part of life. And, I’d also had skin issues for a long time. My GP had been treating me for eczema. In 2016, I got a blood infection from the cracks in my feet, and he sent me to a dermatologist. He took one look at my skin and said: “That’s not eczema. That’s psoriasis.” That kicked things off. Then, a year and a half ago, I started seeing a rheumatologist who diagnosed me with psoriatic arthritis.

Now, the skin issues come and go. Sometimes, it’s great. But, the pain has been a constant. It’s difficult because it’s in your hands and you’re trying to write or type or even look half-way professional with colleagues, or you are interviewing someone and suddenly your hand will cramp up and it’s not like I can just get up and leave the room and shake it off. It became a bit of an issue.

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For folks with musculoskelatal pain, there are lots of “tools” for self-massage, rolling, and stretching. Many of these can be purchased for a fraction of the price at your local dollar store: bouncy balls can be used for trigger points, rolling pins can be used as rollers etc.

KB: I get that. I have a few psoriasis patches and roaming pain and stiffness. The pain comes and goes from lots of different places including my left big toe, my left ankle, my right knee, both of my hips, my lower back, the knuckles on my left hand, my right wrist, both my shoulders, and my neck. Also, I currently can’t fully bend my middle or ring finger on my right hand, which all the doctors describe as – and I’m quoting here – “weird.” But, the relatively recent addition of pain in my hands has added an extra degree of urgency because it directly affects my ability to work.

SCS: For me, I know that’s a good part of why I’m in my seventh year of my PhD. My hands only give me so much time during the day. Some days are good. I can get a few hours in. Some days, I get half an hour in and then I have to take a break. And, you know how hard it is to go back into writing or researching when you’ve been interrupted in the middle.

KB: I totally do. Writing is a fragile art. Or, at least it is for me. Especially with heavy-thinking work: it takes time to ease into. If I get pulled away from it, I often have a hard time finding my way back.

SCS: Yes! I try to explain that to my husband all the time.

KB: And, there’s also a strange balance of figuring out when to attend to the pain and when to push through. My friends – many of whom are disability studies scholars – remind me that it’s important to pay attention to my body and that working more slowly can be an act of resistance. (For more on this, Petra Kuppers’ work is an excellent starting place.) I’m trying, but it’s … ahem … still a work in progress.

On an everyday level, I spend a fair chunk of time trying to find “hacks” to make my working conditions easier: I have figured out that suspenders let me keep ice on my shoulders while typing; I have crafted a standing desk from an ironing board (highly recommend); and I have managed to troubleshoot my way through the logistics of working lying down.

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One of Kelsey’s crowning achievements: a do-it-yourself set up for working lying down. If anyone wants to try, the key is that you still need proper eye-line ergonomics, which means you need to align your forehead with the top third of the screen.

I’m super pleased with myself on most of these discoveries. But, I do find that simple things – like sitting ergonomics – are made harder by the structures of academia.

In the last six years, I have variously worked as a graduate student, sessional instructor, and postdoctoral researcher. But, I’ve never had a permanent office. Compared to the systemic discrimination and barriers that so many people encounter, this hardly constitutes an issue but it means that I can’t curate my working space.

SCS: Or, the space isn’t there when you’re able to use it. In 2016, we [Sandra’s family] got kicked out of our rental and we had to move quickly. In the new place, I have this little room to do work in. Which is great. I’m feeling good and ready to go. But, then my husband decides to pull out the ceiling for nine months, so I was working in the dining room area with two dogs, and I couldn’t get any work done. And, I went to the local library and the universities to work, but it wasn’t as efficient. So, finally, nine months later, everything was stable, but then the pain came. And, it was like you walk two steps forward and then get pushed back.

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I [Kelsey] have experimented with loads of apps that help track pain and/or body cycles (pain, movement, menstrual cycle, sleep etc). Some help. Some don’t. The ones that do help offset some of the mental tracking labour.

KB: Totally, and it doesn’t only impact writing and researching; it also affects teaching.

Last year, I was mid-way through a class on performance and archives, and my pain suddenly flared. It was intense enough that I felt light-headed. At the break, I took myself to the washroom and had a very earnest conversation:

“Kelsey,” I said to myself. “Is there any chance you’re going to pass out? Because, if there is, you need to call off class.”

After a bit of back and forth, I decided I was okay to continue.

In retrospect, I think I’d try to handle that differently by signalling to my students I wasn’t feeling well or ending the class early. But, I often think about that moment because it drew my attention to how few resources were available to me to mitigate the situation.

Unlike elementary or high school teachers, university instructors don’t have colleagues down the hallway who can step in. I can ask people to cover classes, but pain isn’t predictable. And, even if it was, there isn’t a pool of substitute teachers. Usually, I’m asking a colleague, and I often need to bank some of those favours for conference travel or the like.

SCS: I think, too, it’s part cultural: When do you ask for help?

KB: Oh yeah … totally.

SCS: We’re academics. Even though there’s lots of issues and precarity, many of us are fairly privileged in that we get to study what we want to study. So, you’re not always quick to call out. Or to ask for a favour.

KB: And more generally, patriarchy, neo-liberalism, global capitalism – all the “isms” really – tend to belittle interdependence and asking for help. I’m trying to apply concepts from anti-oppression groups, disabilities communities, and critical disability studies to my everyday practices, but it’s not always easy.

Let’s talk about chronic and other kinds of pain, not only in private discussions over a beverage of choice, but also with our colleagues, students, and institutions.

SCS: And, when you’re in pain, you’re not always the most even-tempered person. My husband and I have been in each other’s lives for over forty years and he’s gone through some suffering as well. The last couple of months have been particularly difficult because we’re both in pain. And occasionally I’m like, “Oh my God, are we becoming this squabbling old couple?” But you have to step back and recognize what’s happening, which is, in the moment, so hard.

KB: Yes. I’d like to say that my experiences with pain make me more empathetic, and sometimes they do. But, when I’m having intense amounts of pain, that’s not always true.

And not all the work is personal. Some of it has to be broader. I’m trying – where I can – to push for, and model, systemic changes.

As a teacher, I try to incorporate pain, illness, and injury into access statements and course policies. I’m also working to recognize that not all experiences of pain are going to fall neatly into the purview of institutional access and disability protocols. I can (and want to!) work with students and colleagues to figure out how to navigate bodily changes and to respectfully support one another.

I’m also working to be more open with my own experiences, both as a principle (vulnerability can be really powerful) and to spark discussion. The more I talk to people about my pain, the more they talk about theirs. Those discussions are critical for changing larger circles of discourse.

SCS: Yes. Absolutely.

KB: And, this chat is part of that, I suppose.

SCS: Glad I could be a part of it!