On performance and difference

Over the last few weeks I’ve re-blogged two performance reviews I wrote for Stratford Festival Reviews.com, each about a remarkable piece of work dealing with racial and cultural difference in a contemporary Canadian context. (Look here and here for more.) I wrote both of these reviews in the wake of having attended the engaging and provoking “Beyond Representation: Cultural Diversity as Theatrical Practice” symposium at Modern Times theatre company in Toronto, hosted by my friends and colleagues Natalie Alvarez and Ric Knowles.

What’s more, in the weeks since the event, and since my viewings and reviewings, I’ve noticed the word “diversity” and its cognates (“interculturalism”, “difference”, etc.) appearing with what seems like more than usual regularity in discussions about Toronto theatre, especially courtesy of the always compelling Intermission magazine.

Now, lest I seem to be suggesting anything else, let me be clear: diversity on stage has been part of our discussions about Canadian theatre and performance, its histories and its futures, for a good long time now. These discussions take a number of different forms – in, for example, recent issues of the industry cross-over publication Canadian Theatre Review (check out volume 165, “Equity in Theatre”) and the scholarly journal Theatre Research in Canada / Recherches théâtrales au Canada (last November’s issue is on performance and disability), in the ground-breaking “Beyond the Great White North” season at Factory Theatre, curated by A.D. Nina Lee Aquino, and in some of those aforementioned pieces (click here and here, for example) in Intermission, an online publication by and for artists first. My Canadian Drama class at Western has been focused on intercultural and multicultural performance practices since 2005; my inspiration for that class comes from Ric Knowles, who has pioneered new understandings of interculturalism in performance contexts around the world, let alone in Canada. His Theatre & Interculturalism is a primer in the field, and his work with artists of difference, and particularly Indigenous artists, as a dramaturg, mentor, and friend is well known and extremely well respected.

This stuff, in other words, ain’t new.

Which was the point precisely of the Modern Times event Natalie and Ric hosted, and which is the reason I wanted to share some of my reflections after having attended it. Because as Donna-Michelle St. Bernard, the larger-than-life artist / shit disturber who opened the symposium, has long since noted: diversity is A Good Thing, folks. Can we get over it now and do something freaking about it?

Well, yes and no: as Donna-Michelle, that cheeky trickster, herself well knows, recognizing the value of diversity is easy. PRACTICING diversity at the theatre, in a thoroughgoing and decolonizing way, is really fucking hard.

The former we seem to talk about endlessly (hence DM saying: shut up already!); the latter needs work. Cue the labour.

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Donna-Michelle St Bernard, in a photo by Denise Grant. DMSB is what I think about when I think about how awesome cultural difference actually is. I mean, the hair alone!

Nat and Ric’s symposium did some work indeed. It made me wonder about what I, as a white, female, normatively gendered scholar, can DO rather than SAY in order to ensure I’m acting toward a difference-oriented theatrical and scholarly practice in all the stuff I write and teach and talk about on the subway.  It made me think about my practice as a human being in a diverse workplace and a diverse classroom and a diverse city. It made me think outside of what I think about, usually, when I think about stuff to do with difference.

Herewith, then, just a few reflections from the symposium, linked up occasionally with reflections on the reviews I wrote in its wake. Warning: I’ll probably second guess myself a bit along the way. Not a bad thing.

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If you were the centre of the universe, you could only see outward. All the way around. And someone would always be behind you. Who is that? You’d have to look. Constantly.

This was one of the moments with which Donna-Michelle began her symposium keynote (click the link above to watch the whole thing). I really love the spatial re-orientation it affects. Theatrical space is – yes, even with the advent of site-specific and post-dramatic work – often cartesian in its framing: there’s a centre, and there’s a periphery. Who is at the centre? For a while it was playwrights. Then artists. Then directors. Or some combination of these folks: The Creators. Then we decided audiences were, in fact, the most important artistic collaborators in the theatrical process. Cue a code switch: auditorium as centre of universe.

The trouble with all these things is that they assume the same relationship between centre and periphery: the latter looks at the former, while the former remains curiously “unmarked”, its authority assumed yet invisible. Donna-Michelle proposes something radical instead: the job of the centre is to look outward. Not because that’s the only way it can see itself (thanks, Jacques Lacan, but I’ve moved on), but because that is literally the only thing it can do. Its existence as central depends on an ethics of regard beyond itself. This has ALWAYS been true of the centre. It’s just that the centre rarely recognizes this about itself.

The really great thing about this formulation, for me, is that it applies to everybody, regardless of background, of colour. Of course, in an historically colonial nation like Canada it must apply more frequently to dominant culture subjects (typically white and non-disabled, among other markers), but at the end of the day it’s a formula for living a human life: just look behind you, already. Who’s there? What do you have to adjust – about your assumptions and the actions they precipitate – now that you see that person?

Quite apart from everything else, I find this a fantastic formula to offer students who might otherwise roll there eyes at discussions about race, gender, or ability difference in a class not dedicated explicitly to those issues. Our students aren’t assholes; they are just tired of certain kinds of discursive formulations (especially those that get too often mocked in the media). This formula lets us switch things up, while getting the same message across.

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The performance of authenticity is more common than authenticity. … Representation is 90% projection.

This is another nugget from Donna-Michelle’s keynote (hey, I’m a fangirl; get over it). But it also sums up one of the anxieties the name of this symposium tossed up. “Beyond Representation” seems, at first, a dick move: bare “representation” is nowhere near good enough on its own – see above, re diversity as Good Thing – so how do we even begin to get “beyond” it?

This is, for me, one of the hardest questions we face in Canadian theatre and performance right now, because it presses at the core of what the officially multicultural nation state has taught us to believe about who we are as a group of people with supposedly shared values and ideals. Canada as imagined community is based on the “Good Thing” premise; that means that to “represent” minority communities in Canada means to stage comfortable caricature more often than not. But as Donna-Michelle noted in conjunction with the above comments, for minority-identified actors, “to perform authenticity is to step into the role of the expected. And it is crushing.”

The move past staging the expected is very difficult indeed. In my review of her Little Pretty and the Exceptional, I argued that Anusree Roy missed the mark precisely because she gave into that expectation while also trying to tell a much more complex story about cultural identity, national identity, and cognitive difference, resulting in a piece of work that felt oddly split (and that provoked my theatre companion, who shares Roy’s cultural background, to proclaim the work stereotypical and dull).

Honestly, I fretted about that review for some time. I recognized that I was doing something that maybe wasn’t totally kosher: calling Roy out for not doing something that is actually near impossible in this cultural climate. My critique of her work might have merit – I’m not saying it doesn’t – but thinking back on it, I still fear that critique is in some measure unfair. It points out a problem with our system, not a problem with Roy’s work. But in a review of her play, Roy needs to take the hit.

I didn’t want her to. I wanted the system to take the hit.

But how do you review a system?

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Sugith Varughese & Farah Merani in Little Pretty and The Exceptional, by Anusree Roy. Photo by Joseph Michael

***

How do we use the “fact” of diversity to transform critical practice?

These words are Ric Knowles’, and they come from the symposium’s reviewing panel, which included Ric as well as representatives from Now (Glenn Sumi), the Toronto Star (Carly Maga), and the Globe and Mail (Kelly Nestruck). During that discussion, we debated a variety of ways we might better engage critically with work that happens across difference and via cultural clash and encounter, in the rehearsal room and studio as well as in the auditorium once the show is up. We came to no consensus, though for me two crucial, potential practices emerged.

First, stronger and better contextual awareness. As Ric noted, reviewers simply need to take the time to learn more about what they are seeing and why they are seeing it, especially when something happens on stage that seems not to “make sense” to a reviewer whose “sense” is so-called “common sense”.

Research, people. Ask questions.  Assume less; look behind you more. (Karen Fricker, Maga’s colleague at the Star‘s reviewing desk, has been working toward what she calls embedded criticism for that very reason, though of course that practice, like all embedding practices, comes with both strengths and limitations.)

It seems entirely easy enough. Except, of course, when: deadline.

So again, the system needs shifting more than any individual: asking reviewers to see a show and write the review *immediately afterward* is ridiculously counterproductive for the show, and for the reviewer, especially in an intercultural context where we just cannot, should not, assume intimate and immediate knowledge of one another’s contexts.

But what’s the alternative, at least until the blogosphere fully usurps the cred of the dailies and their digital downloads?

Honestly: I think more artists and academics should be writing reviews, and on a regular basis, and for a wide variety of venues, especially popular ones.

I say this not just because I *obviously* believe myself to be a flawless and amazing reviewer (see above: duh!); I say this because, people, we have the knowledge! And the salaries! And the access! We do the reading. We have the discussions. We know the folks who know the answers to why that thing happened on stage that made no sense at all to most of the straight, white, non-disabled folks in the audience. We get that maybe the show is not for us – and that probably that is actually A Very Good Thing.

When I went to see For Colored Girls… at Soulpepper Theatre, directed by the award-winning goddess Djanet Sears, I took my friend and colleague Naila Keleta Mae along with me. Naila had already seen the show and sat in on rehearsals; she has worked with a number of the artists on the production, and she had insights to share with me that I could not otherwise have learned.

She had also secured a review commission for the show, as I had, which meant that not only would we support each other’s reviewing labour in our shared discussion of the show over drinks afterward, but that we’d have the opportunity to present two different, differently informed, perspectives of the show in two different publication venues – perspectives that could then dialogue with each other in the public sphere, forming part of the production’s critical afterlife.

THIS is a reviewing practice I can get behind.

The ass-kicking cast of For Colored Girls… at Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto; the always and infinitely fierce Djanet Sears.

And yes, I know that we are all crazy busy as academics, and that we sometimes impose our own “learned” assumptions and expectations on the work we see, even and especially where “difference” is concerned. (Hey, you know what? We know better, and we should stop doing that already. LOOK. BEHIND. YOU.)

But we also, as Donna-Michelle pointed out emphatically at the end of her symposium keynote,

“have no idea how much more power [we] have than [we] are exercising.”

So, friends and colleagues: let’s read that line again, for good measure. Look behind us, already. And get writing.

Kim

 

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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.

disobedience files

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