Top tips… for next time around

Last week of classes for us lucky Canadians! Which, of course, means we finally get to breathe, sleep, and stop being zombies. ABOUT TIME.

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Longtime readers know I often get all nostalgic at this time of year (spring fever?), thinking back on the goods and the not-so-goods of the year passed, and thinking ahead to better-luck-next-time. This year, I started heading back to the teaching future early, thanks to a lunch date with my friend and colleague Kate. We were meeting to talk about Kate’s class, which I had observed early in March; ostensibly I was writing Kate a letter of support for her upcoming promotion, but in fact I really just wanted to pick her brain about the awesome ideas I got from sitting in on her class. (Thanks, Kate!)

I emerged from lunch newly energised – and at the perfect time, because: ZOMBIE. I needed to write down my thoughts immediately, so I thought, hey, why not start with a post on the blog?

As I was driving from lunch to my office I made a mental list of the five things that I think I’d like to try out next time (AFTER MY SABBATICAL! AFTER MY SABBATICAL! DID I MENTION I’M GOING ON SABBATICAL??!!!!), thanks to talking about teaching over soup and beet juice with Kate.

Here they are.

1. Start with a warm-up

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A group of Western University students warming up with artists Mina Samuels and Jacqueline Dugal during a recent workshop on campus. Photo by Julia Beltrano.

This wasn’t Kate’s idea, ok, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a bit, and Kate reminded me of why. In her class, she set the tone for the whole period by pausing at the outset and marking the moment of beginning with some powerpoint slides designed to orient students, grounding them in the work ahead and helping them to understand where they had been, were now, and would be going. This kind of tone-setting is so useful, not least because it brings everyone together, in the space, as a community, and then prepares for the shared labour about to be undertaken.

When I teach studio classes I always begin with a warm-up. Sometimes it’s as simple as some yoga. Sometimes it’s a rousing game of “zip-zap-zop”. (That’s zip-zap-boing! to you Brits, thank you very much… although the Eastenders version is still kinda my favourite.) Maybe we might close our eyes and fall into each other, fear be damned.

The logic: studio classes are about body work, so let’s warm those old bodies up! But… seminar work is about our bodies, too! Which is to say: if we are tired, or poorly nourished, or stiff, our thinking is badly affected. So warm-up rules apply: let’s remind ourselves of the bodies that hold our brains, wake up our arms and legs, laugh a bit, share a moment. There shared knowledge begins.

2. Set ONE overarching outcome, in addition to the obvious

Kate and I talked about time management: how do we get through it all in just three hours per week? We talked about how much less content we teach now than when we started, 5 years ago, 10 years ago…. We talked about all the other things we want our students to take away – critical thinking skills; stronger research skills; better writing skills – that we feel like we just don’t have enough time to land fulsomely with them.

Then I said: hey, you know what? Maybe we only have time for ONE of those things, per class, per year.

We both went: “huh!”

So here’s my idea: set one outcome, a kind of ur-outcome, that rests above the other, more mundane ones that we have to include in our course outlines. Or maybe we don’t even put those other outcomes on the course outline (your mileage may vary, depending on your university’s policies, I know). Maybe we just write (for example):

In this course, students who commit to our shared labour will…

develop valuable teamwork skills, learning how to collaborate with others self-reflexively, and effectively.

And then we organise our assignments and in-class activities with that outcome in mind, trusting that the other stuff we’re expected to teach will come along with it – or will happen in another course in our program, because we’re labouring together, after all.

3. Write more, and more creatively, during class time

Kate and I both use versions of what I know as the “two-minute paper”, a chance in class to think while writing, and thus think/write before speaking.

My strategy: I pose a question about stuff related to whatever we’ve read/watched. I make the students write for two minutes before anyone can answer said question. I swear by this as a chance for students to gather their thoughts – whether or not they *actually* write stuff down – before I ask for replies, thus (among other things) circumventing the usual problem of the usual suspects raising their hands right out of the gate.

But the problem is this: some students don’t want to write in reply to the prompt/question. And often the students who DO want to write are the usual suspects. So it works… kind of.

Kate made me think about a couple of writing-related things during our lunch: first, that sometimes the best class writing might not be two minutes long. Sometimes it might be longer. Sometimes it might be five, ten minutes – in relation to an assignment, say, or maybe just reflecting on the state of affairs, the state of the day, how we’re all feeling. More time might be good time.

She also reminded me that, sometimes, the best writing is creative writing.

Academics often forget that we were once students. Students who found stuff academics find fairly familiar kinda… well… hard. Baffling. Frustrating. And when we were students, did we not want to express ourselves? Find ourselves? Discover our creativity, what we have to offer the world? Sure, it’s all very Dead Poets Society, but it’s also true: we are teaching young people who are struggling with big ideas and tired and looking for outlets to express themselves creatively whenever possible.

And that’s no bad thing.

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So maybe next year, my prompts will become less scholarly, and a bit more creative. That’s not to say they’ll stop being rigorous; they might just change their skin a bit, invite a bit more playfulness.

I’ll keep you posted.

4. Be a hard(er) ass

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During the class of Kate’s I attended, several students came in late. Kate glanced toward the door (everybody glanced toward the door) as this happened, but mostly she let it slide.

I do exactly the same thing, every time.

So I asked Kate over lunch: what should we do about students who come in late?

We talked about the labour of calling them out. About how tiring it is, for us, to get angry or lay down the law (whatever that might be). We noted the emotional labour of teaching-as-is; it’s already a hell of a lot, and dealing with thoughtless latecomers is an extra pain in the ass.

(Full disclosure here: I’m pretty sure I was a thoughtless latecomer at least once in my undergraduate career, if not, oh, 17 times.)

So then we said: hey, what if we didn’t – just DID NOT – deal with it? What if, instead of calling it out or ignoring it, we just stopped?

What if we said, on the course outline, and at the outset (fair warning):

Hey! Sometimes you might be late. When that happens, we’ll just STOP. Stop the class. Stop talking.

Not to embarrass you (you might be embarrassed, but, hey, that’s not the goal, though it has fringe benefits…), but because talking through your disruption is tiring and unproductive.

So we’ll pause. When you’re settled, we’ll start again.

Hey, being late happens. It’s happened to all of us.

Maybe just don’t let it happen again, if you can help it.

5. Build in time for spontaneity

I’ve been teaching full time for 12 years now. Every year, every week, I over-prep. I prep because the prep is for me – to make sure I don’t run out of stuff to say. Because that would be a catastrophe, right?

Kate reminded me of something I’d forgotten entirely: sometimes, often, the best learning happens spontaneously.

How do we build in time for that? Maybe by sticking it in the prep.

I’m serious! I’ve started including “if this, then maybe this… or if that, maybe not” moments in my prep, to remind myself that I’m always, already, being responsive to my students’ input, and sometimes that means throwing the whole thing out. But mostly it means being willing to be at sea for a while, to see where the conversation goes.

Usually, if the conversation goes sideways, I scold myself for not getting through the entire plan in my prep.

But what if the conversation going sideways IS the best possible version of the prep? Maybe I need to make more time, and space, for that.

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Happy end of term!

Kim

Theatre for Change: An experiment in Disobedience [Guest post]

Blog friends: at the end of June I spent a week in residence at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London, where I am a Senior Visiting Fellow. I had the chance to run two seminars for graduate students and faculty, one of which focused on teaching, activism, and writing about teaching. I invited participants to become guest posters here on the blog, and today I am thrilled to share reflections on her practice by Nicola Abraham, who teaches in the DATE (Drama in Applied Theatre and Education) stream at Central. Enjoy!

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Theatre for Change: An experiment in Disobedience 

By Dr Nicola Abraham

Introduction

For the past two years I have run a unit called “Theatre for Change” on a drama degree programme in London, England. Theatre for Change examines performances and protest approaches that intend(ed) to provoke audiences into making social change, i.e. by advocating for a change in the law, for equal rights, or further protesting for or against a particular political ideal. Theatre for Change also encapsulates drama based workshops that may be conducted several times a week over a longer period of time within a community setting. Often these community settings are formed of hard-to-reach groups within society, for example, refugees, elders, at-risk youth and caregivers. The intention behind working with marginalised groups is to enable the often suppressed voices of that community to be heard publically.

The Theatre for Change unit is based on my practice and research, and it provides an opportunity for me to introduce students to similar work in this area of Applied Theatre. (Applied Theatre is an umbrella term for theatre that takes place with, for, or by communities.) Part of the challenge I set myself for this unit is to ensure that sessions perform the core pedagogical values of Applied Theatre practice. I would describe these values as follows:

  • Valuing equality of voice
  • Ensuring inclusion of diverse voices in discussion
  • Playing with ideas through practice

Context

We are fortunate to have a growing diversity within our cohort of students. This provides a rich set of voices from different socio-economic and political backgrounds, though predominantly students are left-wing liberal in their thinking. Whilst this diversity offers a wonderful opportunity for students to encounter and embrace different ideas, it does create challenges, especially during whole-class discussions.

Students have a tendency to search for consensus as a means of validating their perspective. For example, one of the students in a recent class raised the point that Theatre for Change leads definitively to social change, that once an audience see a provocative performance, they leave the theatre thinking differently to when they arrived. The unit challenges this point, asking the students to think critically about the possible barriers to change transitioning beyond an audience’s experiences of a performance into their attitudes and actions in their daily lives. Instead of engaging in a debate to examine this potential problem, students responded generally, noting their agreement with their peer. This kind of reaction could be read as a supportive approach towards the dominant views held by the cohort.

Part of this tension may be related to attempts to provide the ‘correct’ answer so that the discussion might move on, which students seemed to think involved a change of topics as opposed to the exploration of more challenging facets within the idea already on the table. For instance, when discussing the ethics of using Forum Theatre to find ways of tackling domestic violence, I raised a question about the ethics of using this approach to tackle such a complex topic. (Forum Theatre, an interactive, problem-solving method derived from Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, seeks solutions to problems depicted on stage from amongst audience members, who actively intervene in the action.) But as soon as I mentioned ‘ethics’, students gave responses mirroring the language I had used to form the question I initially posed to them, rather than taking up the baton of debate the question sought to pose. Here are a sample of replies:

‘I think that, ethically, Forum Theatre shouldn’t explore domestic violence’.

‘For me, it’s really unsafe and unethical to suggest Forum Theatre can work for women in violent relationships’.

One student, however, gave an example of a piece of Forum Theatre she had read about which challenged domestic violence. In this instance, a women in the audience had implemented a solution on stage to change the power dynamic in her relationship with her abusive husband, but had ended up in hospital as a result. Following this incident, her husband was arrested. The student argued this was a successful outcome, representing one possible way out of a violent relationship. A majority of the class disagreed with this suggestion, but the student who had suggested the idea stood her ground. The moment produced an interesting dilemma for the group to consider.

Learning Styles

I should mention that most of my students on “Theatre for Change” are kinaesthetic learners who find understanding new theoretical ideas, through didactic lecturing, challenging. They tend to thrive when they can draw from their own experiences to pin down a new concept. However, this can lead to further tensions, which arise when students appear to give more weight to shared experiences that build consensus, rather than exceptional experiences that break the ‘rules’ of their consensus-seeking approach to discussion. Honouring diverse views is a priority for my classroom, and working through tensions to seek a place of dissensus is important. It is not only necessary for the group to learn the skills to engage in a complex debate, but also to learn a core facilitation skill to help them navigate similar situations in community settings later on.

I would like to share with you an approach I used to enable the group to unpack a complex set of ideas and approach dissensus. I provided them with a ‘shared’ experience of an experiment looking at the concept of disobedience as a tool for civil activism. This formed part of a session entitled ‘Neoliberalism, Austerity and Art for Disobedience’. Before we began the experiment, students had offered their understandings of the potential of Theatre for Change, noting that they generally felt that incremental changes lead to fundamental social change. This session was designed to provide a ‘felt’ response to the barriers that hegemony places in front of a radical practice aiming for fundamental change.

It was also a trick…

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The Experiment: How do we play it right?

The session involved working in teams (chosen by students) to play a game. Each team was given a brown envelope containing instructions for their first task, a pen, note paper, and contact phone numbers for the ‘game master’ (me). The groups were given 40 minutes to complete the game and told that they must provide evidence of the completion of each task in any way they wished. There were no other rules apart from one: The aim of the game was to be disobedient, and the best team would win. Time began at 3:30pm.

The tasks for each group were as follows:

  1. Task one: Prank call one of the numbers provided and tell a funny story. More points are awarded for longer phone calls.
  2. Task two: Steal a book from the library.
  3. Task three: Propose something to a member of staff in the café, and ensure your proposal is accepted.
  4. Task four: Fall asleep and get someone to wake you up; you may not speak.

Each task, unbeknownst to the students, had been set up to avoid any negative repercussions. Books had already been signed out of the library – but they hadn’t been deactivated. Prank calls would be made to other members of staff and to my answer phone. The café staff had been briefed to only say “yes” if a student’s proposal was sincere, and students were informed that their final task had to take place within the safety of the university campus.

Most groups eagerly sought to obey the task instructions to the letter, and sent screen shots of their phone call timings via e-mail or photo message. Others found some tasks too challenging and opted out, after apologising.

A Dilemma: I don’t get it? How to do disobedience properly

The timer stopped at 4:10pm. In a classroom full of excitement teams boasted about their ‘challenge’ stories to one another before we began our debate to reflect upon the game. I informed the group that we had a winning team, but that all the scoring was completely random and disconnected to the achievements of the groups. (However, there was still a prize – a very small bag of chocolates.)

A debate ensued about the tasks, with some groups noting that they completed every activity and should thereby be declared winners. I, however, noted that the instructions were to disobey, so by completing all the tasks, had they really won? Another group at the back of the room noted that they had refused to do the activities and had therefore disobeyed. I asked them what they had chosen to do instead, and they said that they were bored and had sat in the classroom waiting for us to return. I asked why they had chosen boredom as an alternative to the game: was this a way of punishing themselves for disobeying? There were plenty of things they could have done instead to reward their choice to ‘disobey’: for example, visited a local ice cream shop, watched a film, or had a nap. This led to much debate, with groups unpacking their experiences; some noted that no matter what they did they couldn’t win because they felt morally obliged not to undertake certain tasks or were embarrassed to try others.

We then talked about the links between their responses in relation to the invisible work of hegemony, noting how easy it is in our culture to feel morally trapped, compelled into particular behaviours and compelled to avoid other, ‘wrong’ ones. Where does this come from? The group that had felt emotionally torn when asked to steal a book talked about why they felt this way, noting that they felt a moral obligation not to disobey their parents (who teach: you shouldn’t steal). The groups also talked about previous experiences of disobeying authority at school, suggesting that if they didn’t do what they were told they might be put in ‘isolation’ (a strategy used by some secondary schools to punish bad behaviour by making a student work alone in a supervised room). The way hegemonic behaviours had been enacted by the group during the game formed a strong shared connection within the class, and students slowly started to make links between their chosen responses to the tasks and the reasons why they had reacted in that way. Despite holding, individually, vastly different moral and political views of the situation, this time the group didn’t seek consensus but made reasoned responses to the game, connecting theories from previous sessions to justify their actions within the game.

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To end the session, I picked up a previous thread of debate among us, about student concern with grades as a quantifiable measure of success and how this might contribute to neoliberal thinking by fostering a sense of competition within the education system. The students were adamant that they weren’t concerned with success in this way, so I asked them: ‘If this isn’t important to you, then you won’t mind me not revealing the name of the winning group, will you?’

The room erupted. I asked why they needed to know who had won, when I had already told them the scoring was totally nonsensical and they had just claimed not to be interested in competition or grades. They responded that they ‘Just did!’, that ‘they had earned it’, and that I was being unfair: they had done this exercise well for me and deserved to know. I told the group I would make a compromise:

‘I will give you a choice: if you are okay with not knowing the result, you can leave now. I will give you two minutes to decide; after this point I will announce the winner and give away the prize’.

Only 1 person out of 41 students left the room… more work to be done.

About Nicola Abraham: I am a Lecturer in Applied Theatre Practices at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, London, England. Over the past 10 years I have worked in a range of community settings within the UK and abroad. As an Applied Theatre Practitioner I have had the privilege of working with many people in society from Camden Carers, Arts for Dementia, KAYAK youth club, an Orphanage in Zmiaca Poland, Pupil Referral Units, Schools, Psychiatric units, Women’s Advocacy Groups, Children’s Charity contexts for vulnerable youth, Crossroads bi-communal project in Cyprus, Drama in Education in Germany (2016), IDEA conference in Austria (2015) on intercultural practice and Hellenic Drama in Education in Greece (2013). I have also undertaken a research project with women’s prison theatre company Clean Break. I am currently conducting research into the potential of theatre to affect change in the lives of vulnerable youth in inner city contexts.

 

The Year That Was, 2016: What Happened When the Students Created the Supplementary Course Reader and Set Their Own Deadlines

Back in May 2015 I wrote three reflective posts about the academic year just passed: what worked, what didn’t, what I hoped to do differently in 2015-16. This year, instead of following that formula, I’ve decided to report on two of the changes I implemented. One went substantially better than I thought it might – though there’s room for improvement, as you’ll see – and the other kind of tanked, in a way I didn’t anticipate – though in hindsight I totally get it, and managed to salvage it nevertheless.

1. Students Create the Supplementary Course Reader

Last year, my teaching assistant for my 20th Century Theatre course, Madison Bettle, built an amazing tool for us all: a reader on our website designed to fill in some of the historical, cultural, and political gaps in student knowledge that we might not get to (or get to fully) in class. Labelled the “supplementary course reader”, Maddie’s tool was a hit with students, who reported using it constantly to prepare for class, essays, and exams. When she reflected on the reader’s popularity, however, she noted that it was a bit too one-way for her liking: it was content delivery online, which meant it also smacked of the kind of passive learning we both like to avoid. She suggested perhaps students ought to be involved in the reader’s creation, as well as its downloading, in future years, and I eagerly took up that suggestion.

This year, 20th Century Theatre began with a visit from Maddie, who explained the supplementary course reader’s construction and purpose to the new cohort; this information complemented the course reader assignment description I’d set out in the syllabus. Students were responsible for creating two course reader entries over the year, one per term; they could choose the weeks they would contribute, as well as the topics they’d write about, or they could suggest their own topics. Each contribution was worth 5%, and I purposefully designed the task so that it would be fairly easy for a committed but not necessarily gifted student to achieve 5/5. Students needed to tick 5 boxes, from being on time with their draft submission to me, to covering some basic content bases, to editing their draft in accordance with my suggestions and uploading their final draft to our website; they did not need to create something perfect, nor indeed essay-like. The purpose of the reader, I stressed, was to contribute to our shared understanding of the periods and cultures under discussion in class, not to make an argument or demonstrate exceptional grammar skills. Newsy posts were good; so were photos and videos, plus useful links in the Works Cited. It was fine to start with Wikipedia, but not a good idea to stop there. To assist students confused by this (admittedly somewhat unique) assignment, I created a model entry for the first week and talked us through it in class. I also made a point of drawing attention (in a good way) to the first couple of posts made by students in September.

[You can take a look at our crowd-sourced supplementary course reader here.]

The pros? My god, the students were on the ball about this. Maybe a quarter of the time did I have to remind them to get me drafts on the Monday afternoon before the week’s classes; once I’d done so they were immediately responsive, and of course by that point I’d already read and commented on the work submitted by students ahead of the game. I found it really important to vet the drafts; I hadn’t realised until the first wave of work came in that the draft editing stage was my opportunity to arrest any egregious mistakes that probably ought not to be published on the web. (Although the class’s WordPress site was designed not to be easily searchable by bots or trolls, it was nevertheless public.) At the same time, though, the students were clearly making valuable contributions to our collective knowledge as a class, and I also used my read of their first drafts to encourage them to augment ideas, both with text and with supporting images and videos.

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The cons are all down to me. In fact there’s really just one big con: I was so busy imagining this assignment and creating the scaffolding for students to contribute to the reader that I forgot entirely to think about how the reader could be used, actively, in class or toward future assignments. I often pointed at the week’s contributions in class, noting whenever possible links to our discussions or to my or my TA’s pocket lectures; I don’t think that was enough, however, and I felt at year’s end like all that great material was just sitting there on the website, underused. I did not – again, not really thinking enough about application! – ask the students on the mid-year survey how the course reader contributed to their weekly prep, nor did the stats WordPress offers give me enough information about who used the course reader page when. (Maddie’s reader was exceptionally well used because she was an instructor on the course; I’d really like to know to what extent students were willing to use one another’s work as authoritative. My guess is: less than I’d hope, more than I fear.)

So, while I’ll certainly keep this assignment for future iterations of the course, I’ll give a great deal more thought next time to how its materials will apply to student learning outcomes overall, and I’ll poll the students actively on how they use the course reader materials. I’ll probably also design a larger, capstone assignment for the course with the reader in mind.

2. Students Set Their Own Deadlines

Still in 20th Century Theatre, I decided to hand power to each student to decide when they/she/he would hand in the theatre review assignment, as well as the major research essay assignment. In the first case, we took two field trips to see shows in Toronto, one in November and one in January, and students had the option to review either show, handing in reviews the week after the field trip. In the second case, students were given a roster of dates to pick from in March and early April, and could hand in their research essays on any of the three, provided they selected their due date in advance. We chose dates together before Reading Week, when our research librarian Melanie Mills came to speak to the class about time management. The rule was that students could ask for “extensions” on their original deadlines up to and including the final suggested due date, as long as those extensions were requested before their chosen deadline rolled around. Plus, a bonus for anyone handing in on the first or second suggested date: feedback from both me and my TA Meghan, plus a chance to “do over” for a better grade.

I – VERY naively, clearly! – assumed students would take full responsibility for their learning as a result of this process, and hand stuff in according to the schedules they set for themselves. Students often complain to me that their stuff in my class is due the same week as everyone else’s class’s stuff; I figured if I gave them the option of picking their own due dates, and encouraged them to look at their schedules and think in advance about how to balance their assignments, they’d nail it AND stop complaining to boot.

Um. Ya. Yup. Right.

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It turns out students are way human, and procrastinate about their own self-imposed deadlines exactly as well as I do. Loads of them picked the first deadline; by the end, only two or three of 25 actually handed in that day. (Similarly, while everyone professed the best of intentions with the theatre review assignment, only two students reviewed the November performance.) They came to me shame-faced, asking if they could extend; true to my word, I granted them the extensions requested, and could only commiserate with them about how hard it is to stick to a deadline you impose on yourself. When the advantages are theoretical (I can party AFTER I hand in!) and the consequences limited… well, we all kind of suck at sticking to our word.

In the end, though, the abject failure of the set-your-own-deadline task was saved beautifully by a meta-assignment I attached to the research essay. Students were invited to keep a time management journal, writing at least four entries in it reflecting on how the preparation for their research essays was going (and on how they were doing at sticking to their deadlines). The return was golden: create a time-management plan (in class with me and Melanie at the start of the process), write the entries, and hand in with your research essay’s final draft, and you’d be rewarded with a bonus 5% on top of your essay mark, no strings attached.

To my surprise, students DID keep the journals. (Admittedly, I offered short bursts of time in class on occasion to write entries, guaranteeing a certain amount of buy-in.) And in keeping them, they took a surprising amount of time and space to reflect on what went wrong when they failed to keep to their originally chosen deadlines. The TM task, in other words, allowed students to confront their bad time management habits directly, and to think carefully about why they had not managed to take full advantage of the opportunity to set their own, more effective, deadlines for the research essay. While I would have liked to see students better use their time to begin with and hand in early for the do-over opportunity, I was really glad to read so many honest, forthright self-analyses, evidence that, at the very least, I got students thinking about how much their schedule chaos is down to their own making, rather than their profs’ tendencies to, you know, schedule final assignments at the end of term.

(Plus, it’s kind of a relief to know that your prof is also great at procrastinating, and is constantly working on that … I wasn’t shy about sharing this all-too-human reality with them, either.)

So I think I’ll use the choose-your-own-adventure deadline option again too – though this time primarily to watch students realise, along with me, how hard it is to work effectively within so much freedom. Something tells me that’s the best lesson to learn, and to learn early.

Kim

 

Give me an effing break already!

A couple of weeks ago, as finals wound down and the interminable meetings that litter the exam period came to an end, I ran into my chair, Bryce, in our department’s main office. We exchanged some chat about bikes (our mutual passion) and Theatre Studies (our mutual project); I talked about my latest workplace trauma (of course). Then he said:

‘I really hope you’re planning to take a break this summer.’

People, more needed words were never spoken. And yet my gut reaction?

When? How?! AAGGGHHH!!!!!

I told him I’d scheduled a break for the week previous, and had ended up doing book revisions instead. Then I’d moved the scheduled break to the week in which we were chatting; obviously, that one had also gone sideways. I was looking into the end of May by that point, and colliding with a conference I’d been co-organizing, plus more book revisions, a paper for a conference I was attending in June, more work-related travel commitments…

I thought maybe I could do the break in July.

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All this might well read to you as lame. ‘Good grief, woman!’ you might be thinking. You’re a tenured prof at a good school; take a freaking holiday already! And yet it’s actually hard, from the inside, to make that holiday time; thanks to email (aka 24/7 comms, aka My Modern Albatross), my tendency to say yes way too much (more on that in the coming weeks; see below), and my anxious reaction to Stuff That Piles Up On My Desk, I am far, far better at deferring the ‘scheduled’ holiday than taking it.

(My last holiday was a year ago, at the Sivananda ashram in southern Kerala, and a damn fine break it was. Although I did – in true academic fashion – check my email once a day just in case, and triage a page proof trauma one afternoon from the one spot in the joint that had reliable wifi. Do not judge me.)

Here, it doesn’t help either that I don’t have kids, or currently a partner, whose holiday needs might enforce my own; it also doesn’t help that I spend so much money on research travel (my own and my university’s, but – make no mistake – plenty of my own) that it’s hard to justify further outlays of cash on frivolities like, oh, I don’t know… my sanity.

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Sometimes, though, the heavens grant you a gift, and this past weekend I got one. My dear friends Steven and Peter were moving out to their cottage, on the gorgeous South Shore of Nova Scotia, for the summer; they were bringing the family cats and needed a third to carry Baz, the sweet (and heavy!) old one, on the plane. They enlisted me, which got me a free round-trip ticket to Halifax, accom in a fantastic woodland hideaway, plus day tripping to the beach and evenings in the hot tub.

So I took a freaking break, already.

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Make no mistake: this long weekend in the woods is NOT my summer holiday. If anything, it’s reminded me how much I need more down time this summer. So I’ve resolved that the week I return from my insane June research and conference travel will be a week off; I’m taking a virtual (email) holiday as well as a ‘real’ one. (You can hold me to it, and I’ll report on how it goes.)

Then, upon returning to work (slowly!), I am making it a proper task to figure out better work-life balance for the 2016-17 school year. Because I cannot live through another year like this past one, which was sheer hell and included a couple of serious close calls for me, personally. And because I have no intention of committing holiday time to thinking about my job in any way – even about how to balance my job and my life more effectively.

Academics may live our labour, but our labour does not need to live us.

***

As I travel in the coming weeks, I’ll be doing some teaching about teaching at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, England; I’ll also be reflecting on some of the stuff I learned about new (and old) advances in pedagogy in recent weeks from colleagues here in Canada, as well as thinking critically about the year of teaching just behind me.

Look forward to the following posts:

Next up: ‘Flipping’ the Theatre Studies Classroom… Back Again.

After that: The Year That Was, 2016: What Happened When the Students Created the Supplementary Course Reader and Set Their Own Deadlines

And then: Learning to SAY NO. (Especially for my female friends, colleagues, and readers. Just. Say. No.)

Meanwhile: some holiday snaps for your enjoyment. Because: Nova Scotia is so beautiful that everyone should see it!

Warmly,

Kim

 

Looking back, looking ahead – part 2

On New Year’s Day I posted a look back at last semester, with three things I felt had gone quite well September through December. Herewith, part two of that post:

Improvement city.

1. I need, finally, to make a proper commitment to actual, effective time management in the classroom.

I am, as a professional teacher, better than most at keeping to schedules. But the fact remains that I routinely run out of time in my classes to talk thoroughly (or at all!) about important stuff I excitedly put on the syllabus at the start of the year (or in the prep at the start of the week!). The primary culprit is over-prepping, which I’ve written about before on the blog, but it’s also true that I welcome discussion in class and do a lot of things to frame it – a lot of my prep is, therefore, exercise set-up, and exercises can usually be modified or thrown out on the fly with no real harm done to my headspace.

The way I foreground team-based exercises in class, however, also means that inevitably some content stuff just gets missed out: the post-exercise discussion takes on a life of its own and then before I know it we’re at time and I never got to the CRUCIALLY IMPORTANT pocket lecture with which I was supposed to end the class…

Accidentally ending up with a rollocking class discussion is, of course, no bad thing: it’s just a blessing that also happens to be a time management problem for a teacher who really needs to get this key piece of the puzzle out on the table, so that next day the course can move forward. Without torpedoing next week’s class, and the class schedule after that.

My first reaction to our first awesome class discussion/total time management fail in my larger class (20th Century Theatre) this past fall was predictable:

AAGGHH!!!! WHY IS THIS STILL HAPPENING TO ME???

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Then I took a deep breath. And I realised: hey! I could just put my pocket lecture online. So I posted the notes to the “in class tools” page of our course blog, started the next class with them on screen, said a few words about some of the key ideas they contained, and asked the students to have a full read on their own time. Then, we moved on.

As the semester progressed, I realised – obviously belatedly since lots of my fellow profs already know this stuff (duh!) – that the web is my friend when in-class time starts to run short. It’s easy to put things on my class’s (relatively sophisticated) course blog – as text, or even as audio or video. It’s easy to shoot the students an email alert telling them it’s up. It’s easy to remind them that this will take about 5/10/15 minutes of their time, sometime between now and next class. Which means it’s increasingly less stressful to prioritise class discussions that look like they might run long. No more half checking out as we talk, with one eye on the clock. No more trying desperately to pull the chat back toward the lecture piece coming up next, so as to svengali a cool segue. Less time stress in every way.

Now that winter 2016 is here, I’ve decided to turn this revelation about the power of blended learning into an experiment a bit radical. My colleague at Brock University, Natalie Alvarez, and I have decided to team-teach our upcoming performance studies classes virtually. We will be recording a fair amount of content for the web to be viewed by students on their own, so that when we get together physically we can just focus on discussion, full stop. We are giving the students one of three class contact hours “back” in order to do this work carefully and in an engaged way, at least until reading week. (This is a mark of true blended learning classes: some contact hours are online, some in person.) And students will be asked repeatedly to engage with one another online by looking at each other’s posted work across the 200km between us, offering feedback, reactions, questions for discussion, and collaborative critique via the website.

I have unsuitably high hopes for what is a total experiment and could well become an unmitigated disaster. More in April!

2. I have indeed given the students the task of creating the course reader. With mixed results.

Back in May I reflected, with my former TA Madison Bettle, on the challenge of creating and maintaining supplementary material on the web that students will actually use, but will not use passively. My solution was to task this year’s cohort with creating a version of the supplementary research archive that Madison had made on her own initiative last year.

So, as per the spec, my 20th Century Theatre students are this year building the reader: each week two or three of them are assigned topics from a list supplied by me, and each week they must send me their draft contributions by noon on Monday. I do a light edit, ask for a handful of minor changes (and sometimes a bit of fresh investigation), and then I invite them to upload their final contribution, with images and media, to our course blog on their own. Once that happens, I provide official comments and a grade. (I also provide, in some cases, some last-minute quality control.)

The good? Some contributions are just amazing, most are perfectly good, and the students have thrown themselves into this labour, on the whole, with gusto. I even have some evidence, thanks to our mid-year anonymous class survey, that they are reading one another’s work!

The ho-hum? I’ve found editing some of the draft material incredibly onerous – I’ve realised that this task basically asks the students to create public writing, even if the “public” is just our class, and it occurs to me that I might need to prepare them better for this (upsettingly rare) task before I throw them into it again next year. I offered a “model” supplementary reader contribution in the second week of class, and I invited Madison to come and speak about the logic and intentions behind the reader’s original creation. Regardless, students seemed, at least on their first passes through the task, confused more often than not: is it an essay? If not, what is it? (Part of this is because too many students are only ever asked to write essays, of course. “Essay” equals “writing” for them. Which is HORRIBLE.)

Finally, I’ve discovered on the fly how to grade these things, and I suspect the grading process is not at all transparent to students going into the task for the first time. I’ve now engineered a grading rubric, and have come to the realisation that it needs to be shared with the students ASAP, and not just on a case-by-case basis. This should have of course happened at the start of the semester, but I was overly preoccupied trying to help them understand the purpose behind what they were doing in the first place. Oh well: never too late to clarify, especially where marks are concerned!

3. I need to find some windows. NOW.

Last semester I taught in a windowless room. The same room. Both classes.

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(This is not the exact room, but it’s a pretty reasonable facsimile. Nice, huh? Yup.)

 

 

 

 

It is shaped like a Greek auditorium. At first blush this seemed great – I teach in a theatre program, after all! The room can provide several lighting states, has about six white boards that can be shuffled up and down, and comes with a full tech setup and plenty of room for guests.

In fact, the room is an albatross. Because the chairs and tables don’t move. And there are NO WINDOWS in it.

World, I ask you. How can a classroom with no windows be permitted to exist in 2015? Quite apart from the fact that our days on this green and sunny earth may well be numbered, I just don’t understand the logic behind making any teaching or learning space light-tight. Whatever that logic is, it cannot, to my mind, make up for the sheer fatigue we all feel trooping in there at 9:30am on a sunny day, to be hit by fluorescent lights and projector beams. I know my students are tired at 9:30 because they are students, and thus not inclined to rise before 10; I also know they are tired because the fecking room is a nightmare of unnatural stimuli that, evidence suggests, negatively impacts student learning.

I don’t know how to solve this one, or if it’s solvable, short of moving the class, periodically, outside as the weather improves in spring. Which I am not at all opposed to doing – because this is the view beyond the walls:

computer_science

And on that happy note, a good semester to you all!

Kim