Interview with Sarah Bay-Cheng

As 2019 drew to a close, I had the pleasure of chatting with Sarah Bay-Cheng, the current Dean of the School of the Arts, Media, Performance and Design at York University in Toronto and one of the co-hosts for On TAP, a podcast dedicated to issues in theater and performance studies and academia.

The following is the first of a two-part interview that covers everything from how different kinds of performance (theatre and sport!) have influenced Sarah’s teaching to how she applies her pedagogical approach in her new position as a dean.

Sarah-Bay-Cheng-1

KB: How does your work as a theatre and performance studies researcher inform your pedagogy? How has your approach evolved over time?

SBC: I don’t know that I can think about teaching outside of performance. I’ve always been teaching in performance or performance-related fields and I see teaching itself as an outgrowth of my early theatre training. I was not a very good actor, but I was a pretty good ham and show-off. I found that those skills leant themselves pretty well to animating classrooms and I’ve enjoyed that.

More recently, as I’ve moved into administration, I find that I often think and approach problems in ways that are closely aligned to how I approached problems in theatre and performance work. I see my current role as Dean as very similar to work that I did as a theatre director.

For example, I did one year of an MFA directing program at Purdue University before I left to do my PhD at the University of Michigan. When I was a little baby MFA director, the head of the directing programme, Jim O’Connor, looked at a project of mine and said: “So, Sarah, I see the work that the actors are doing. I see the work the designers have done. I hear what the playwright has written. Where is your work? What are you doing?” I remember being pretty flummoxed. On the one hand, there’s the thought: “Oh but it was my idea and my staging, my vision…” Certainly, that’s one way of thinking about the visibility of the director’s work. But, I would say that the real work is in all the invisible connections between the elements that you can see. It’s the fluidity of a performance. It’s the cultivation of collaboration; it’s the movement of the event as a whole. Where you see my work is where the points of friction have been worn down just enough to function smoothly but not so much that there are gaps or disconnections. For me, that was the real art of the director and I see my role as dean in much the same way.

directors_chair

Both as director and dean, I come into a space and meet a group of diversely talented and opinionated people who are more or less focused on the same problems and have similar questions or challenges. But each person sees those problems and challenges from very different angles, and everyone has very different things to offer. All of these things can be complementary but at any given moment will need more or less attention than another. Like most theatre productions, one needs to pay close attention to resources. And, there’s the perennial collaborative question: How do you get talented people with very strong ideas which might be diametrically opposed to one another to collaborate ?

My job as – what we might call a “creative administrator” – is to create a context in which people can build on their strengths. I need to figure out how to get everyone what they need to be successful, and to step in to resolve conflicts and problems when they arise. My job is to hold “the company” as collaborative community, but with clear direction on what we’re trying to do at any given moment. It’s not perfect, but I find that those metaphors, framework, and training from theatre have been helpful to me.

KB: So much of my pedagogical practice is informed by my experiences with theatre, and particularly sport. Where are some of your teaching influences not in the academy?

SBC: I played a lot of sports as a kid, including basketball very seriously through high school and was recruited to play in college. I ended up playing four years in undergrad and was captain for two of those. And a few years ago when my kids were younger, I had the opportunity to coach 7th and 8th grade girls’ basketball, which was joyful.

Basketball

When I’m with my students, it’s like a kind of coaching relationship in which there is always a moment – and it’s like this with being a director too – where you want to capture their imagination. But, eventually you take your hands off and just coach here and there. And it’s the same thing in rehearsal process.

One of my teachers, Rita Giomi, used to say that you knew you had the best rehearsal when you said the least. And, it’s really true. It’s in those moment when your team or your cast are taking ownership of the project. And I think there’s a similar trajectory that I try to follow in my classroom.

In the beginning, I’m trying to animate the material and get people excited for what comes next. I’m not afraid to put myself out there or to be unconventional, especially when working with undergraduates. But then eventually it’s about turning control and ownership over to the students so that by the end of the semester I’m saying very little. Or, at least less. And that they are looking to me less and less. It’s very much about what students bring to each other and the group.

Team Captain Badge

As a dean, it’s a little different. My new role is more like that of a team captain. I’m not handing anything over to anyone. They already have it. When I played basketball, I was a point guard, and I see this job as very akin to that. My role is to have vision of the whole floor and to anticipate how the play is developing. What’s coming and what’s moving. Then, my job is to deliver the ball to the people that are going to be most effective and to faciliatate the flow of people working together. I see myself in that capacity – and probably also as head cheerleader. If you talk to me for five minutes (or follow me on twitter), I will tell you how amazing my Faculty is and how great my colleagues are and how lucky I am to be in this community right now, working alongside these talented people. And, it’s true.

KB: That’s amazing. Speaking to your new role, what’s gained and lost in your move to administration? 

SBC: The biggest thing that’s lost is time with students and direct connections to them. I just don’t interact with students very much anymore. I’ll have breakfast and lunch and a couple of “Coffee with the Dean” kinds of things. But, again, it’s more removed: the faculty, staff, and students are doing their thing, and I’m just trying to keep it all humming behind the scenes. It’s rewarding, but I really miss teaching. I may try to do some teaching over the next few years.

But, it’s important that I maintain capacity both in terms of my energy and my time and attention for my colleagues. I take my responsibility and my service to the Faculty very seriously. There are things that are going to come up that only I can address. I miss teaching, and I will look forward to doing it again in whatever capacity it’s there. But I also take a lot of satisfaction in working on developing the systems that I think are delivering a lot of great things to our students.

An Experiment with Attention Management

It is hard to believe the first month of 2020 is nearly over!

As many folks do, I had intended to use the turn of the calendar year to intentionally reflect on 2019. Truth be told, however, the fall of 2019 was a swamp of reflection, and I’m a little reflected-out. But, I’m still committed to shifting my working practices towards healthier, more sustainable habits.

So, rather than reflecting, in January 2020, I audited.

More specifically, I tracked my energy and attention expenditure in relation to research, writing, and prep time.

I was motivated to do so by my interest in the recent swell of thinking that attends to “attention management.” This includes Deep Work by Cal Newport and 24/7: Late Capitalism and the End of Sleep by Jonathan Crary. The politics and motivations of the two authors differ considerably; Newport is interested in “hacking” the attention economy to facilitate the conditions of what he calls “deep work” or uninterrupted, focused, thinking and writing, while Crary’s work aims to understand, unsettle, and question the attention economy in relation to the circuits of capitalism.

But, the two books share an underlying argument: the attention of subjects enmeshed in late capital is incredibly scattered.

On the one hand, we have access to a wealth of information and communication. I just googled the weather in Paris (a balmy 8 degrees Celsius) and sent my mother an email, which presumably arrived in her inbox seconds after I sent it.

On the other hand, the communication and information never shuts off. Your family, friends, colleagues, and students are only ever an email away, but the reverse is also true: you are only ever an email away. So, even if you don’t check your email on weekends, you could be, and it takes a certain amount of energy to set and hold that boundary (this is one of the major takeaways from Crary’s book). As if that wasn’t enough, there are the many pits of distraction modern technology (like the web) offers (see: YouTube videos with cute animals or, in my case, Broadway musical theatre show clips).

Alongside other factors (like 24 hour grocery stores), these conditions make it very difficult to be fully focused on a single task, thought, or moment for a significant length of time.

The stream of thinking that attends to what might be called the “attention crisis” often advocates for attention management. This essentially means becoming aware of how and when our attention is divided and then intentionally limiting distractions in order to be more productive.

So, I decided to log my work blocks for the month of January.

My goal was to jot down when I sat down to work, what I did while I sat down to work, and to note when I finished working. I even bought myself a spiffy calendar notebook and a nice pen for the task.

Kelsey’s spiffy calendar

As I often find is the case with these kinds of things, the most interesting part of the exercise wasn’t the data it produced but the process. Attempting to track my attention effectively drew my attention to how often I toggle between tasks while working and how quickly I can slide from a legitimate writing-related search to mindless Internet surfing.

Most interestingly, it made me notice 1) How often I check my email, and 2) How much checking my email affects me emotionally.

The moment an email arrives in my inbox, it becomes part of my mental space. Even if I don’t focus on it, my knowledge of its existence weighs. And, if that email has content that I care about, I get jolted from one feeling state to another. Both of these experiences pull me away from the researching, writing, or prep I’d set out to do.

These aren’t major revelations, but the tracking really helped emphasize the significance of little habits, and has led me to make series of small changes to how I organize my working time. In no particular order, these include:

  1. Leaving my phone in another room while working.
  2. Selecting a playlist I’m going to listen to in advance, so I don’t  toggle to my music player once every three minutes.
  3. Using two Internet browsers: one for research and/or prep related searches and one for emails and surfing the web.
  4. Setting aside time to check my emails and not checking my email outside of these times. (I support this by closing the email tab on my browser, which is so small, but really helps).
  5. Setting time parameters for writing or prep time (“I’m going to sit and do this one thing from 9am to 11am”), setting an alarm to mark the end of that time, and then actually stopping when the alarm goes off.
  6. Paying attention to my energy midway and toward the end of a work session: if I find myself uncontrollably drawn to surfing the web, it’s time to get up and give myself a break.

To be honest, it’s a work in progress. Even though I’m noticing it more, I’m still amazed at how quickly and easily I start “multitasking.”

That said, the little changes I’ve made have resulted in a subtle but noticeable sense of relief when I sit down to do work.

Because, as it turns out, sustained focus is not only an “attention hack,” it actually feels good in my body.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Joanne Tompkins Interview Part II

This is the second part of a two-part interview with Professor Joanne Tompkins, who currently seconded from her position at the University of Queensland to work with the Australian Research Council as Executive Director of the Humanities and Creative Arts panel. (Click here for part one.)

Joanne Tomkins

Joanne Tompkins

On Classroom Behaviour and Technology in the Classroom

KB: How do think technology has shifted in the classroom for you? Or has it?

JT:  Hugely … I’m still getting used to the fact that people are on their phones throughout my ARC presentations for many different reasons. I get a lot of people leaving half way through. An academic may be upset if a student leaves their class, but they have no compunction about leaving my presentation. There may be 50 reasons why they’re leaving and that’s fine. But, I find it fascinating that most don’t make the connection that in effect they are students in this context. And they are doing exactly what bothers them about their students.

KB: 100 per cent. I came up against my own learning moment around that in September. I don’t love it when students take pictures of my slides. And, during my French classes last month, I totally caught myself taking pictures of the board. On the one hand, I was like: “Kelsey Blair, you’re doing the thing that you hate when students do it to you.” And, on the other hand, I thought: “But, it’s way easier this way!”

JT:  Yes … yes. But, I guess if I think back to when I first started teaching, we would also have to remind students to bring a notebook and pencils. We’d get the students who would come to a tutorial and assume that they were just going to ‘perform.’ It’s been a huge shift.

KB: And, as a teacher, there is always the issue of how to use technology. I often have heated debates with myself about whether or not to post lecture slides, and, if I do, whether it will affect in-lecture attendance.

JT: One of the things I’ve seen over years with students is exactly that: assuming that lectures are optional. Apparently “nothing really happens in them; I don’t need this material. I can find it myself.” I would explain to students at the beginning of the year, perhaps too soon in the semester, sure you can find all of this information out there on the Internet. But think about how much work I’ve done to narrow it, to select the best information, to shape it, to winnow out the stuff that is out there. Take advantage of the work I’ve done: I’m giving you this information.

Looking Backward; Looking Forward: Advice to Past and Future Selves

KB: If you could offer three pieces of advice to your former teaching self, what would they be? And: where do you want to grow in your teaching self, whatever context that might take on?

JT: Good questions … Three pieces of advice to my former: relax, trust, enjoy. Don’t be so panicky. Trust that you do know more than you think you know. And, enjoy the experience. Not that it’s always enjoyable. Sometimes it’s hard work. But, it’s wonderful in those times when you actually make that connection, whether it’s with students or, for me now, with my peers.

Looking forward: It’s really hard because when I finish next year at the ARC, I have a semester of study leave to work on a book and then I don’t know what I’m doing in 2021. I’m thinking that I will still inevitably be in a role that has a pedagogical element to it but it’s very much a “watch this space,” for me. I don’t know what I’m going to be doing but I’m actually happy with that. That’s not the scary thing I would’ve thought it would be. Can we talk in the future?

KB: Of course. You can expect to hear from me in 2021!

Joanne Tompkins Interview Part 1

Professor Joanne Tompkins — currently seconded from her position at the University of Queensland  to work with the Australian Research Council as Executive Director of the Humanities and Creative Arts panel — kindly agreed to chat with me about performance and pedagogy, and I couldn’t be more excited to share what emerged from our conversation!

Joanne Tomkins
Professor Joanne Tompkins-

We talked across a range of subjects from performing in a classroom over time to costuming to teaching to different audiences.  We chatted so much, in fact, that the conversation will be spread across two posts!

Rather than edit our conversation into the appearance of formal interview, Joanne and I curated excerpts around key topics.

This post’s topics include: “Performing in the Classroom” and “On Teaching to Different Kinds of Audiences.” Part II will feature “Classroom Behaviours,” “Technology in the Classroom,” plus “Looking Forward and Looking Backwards: On Teaching Over Time.”

Teacher

A teacher, performing in the classroom.

On Performing in the Classroom:

KB: I tend to approach teaching from the perspective that there is always a performance-element to teaching and that element is immensely personal. Is that true for you?

JT: Yes. Absolutely. I’m not a performer in the formal sense at all. I’m not an actor or director. But maybe if we all have a percentage of a performer in us, that’s where mine comes out.

KB: Do you think your performance has changed overtime? How did it look in that first classroom as a TA? How did it look somewhere in the middle? How does it look now?

JT: It has changed. Certainly, if I could look at now first: my confidence levels are much higher. One of the things that I have taught new teachers is to remember that you know more than the students do; remember that you can answer their questions, and in the cases where you can’t, this is what you do: say “Interesting question. Let’s all think about this for next time” – but make sure you return to it next class.

Now, I know I can rely on experience to answer those tricky questions, and in my current position, it’s politically tricky ones as well as the intellectually tricky ones. There’s that confidence of knowing how to do it and knowing I can do it. That assurance is what comes with age and experience.

In the middle, I would’ve gone into a classroom, adrenaline always running, and having enough materials with me to be prepared for anything. So, if the class plan failed, there was a backup plan, even if not a formal one. If the students had all of a sudden read the material and wanted more, I was ready. If they hadn’t read the play at all, I had different ways of dealing with that. Because, while I knew I had the reserves, I wasn’t always sure I could rely on them in the moment.

At the beginning, it was just fear and trepidation (laughs) and the constant self-doubt about “can I do this?!”

KB: How do you feel that your outside, formal work and your self in the classroom integrate? Or do they integrate?

JT: I think they do and they don’t. I would go back to what I said about the performance comment. I think I do perform in a classroom. People I know well might be surprised to see me in the classroom. It’s not Jekyl and Hyde but I am more expressive in the classroom, trying to bring the students or audience with me physically as well as intellectually. So, I think that’s the big difference. I know I did that when I was lecturing at the University and I know I do it in my current role now. I ask questions like “do you understand what I mean? Am I making sense?” a lot.

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Scarf: essential wardrobe piece for Kelsey’s teaching costume

KB: Has that changed over time?

JT: I don’t think it would’ve been the same when I was in my Masters (when I first began teaching) because I was still very much developing that persona–or what an appropriate persona was and trying to keep it together. I can remember wearing suits: dressing up (it was the 80s!). I had a costume. I was young too, so it was my way of setting boundarires which worked for me. It probably didn’t matter to the students!

KB: That’s super interesting. For me, who was an athlete in my undergrad, I was always the kid in the back of class in sweatpants. So, when I was first TAing, I really had to figure out the costuming, to find the balance between setting a boundary and my personal style – which tends to be more laid back.

JT: It does take a while, but you’ve hit something. Every time you move geographically or move into a different teaching role, there are those specific geographic/contextual differences.

KB: Yes, and I’ve found that it shifts over time as well. I have tended to read a little closer in age to my students than I am. They’re often checking my cultural references to place me in time. It doesn’t bother me but I realize eventually I’m not going to going to read that way anymore. It’s already happening as a basketball coach. I used to read like their older sister. That isn’t true anymore. And, it changes how I can relate to players, which changes how I coach them.

JT: I find the cultural references fascinating. I had prided myself for a long time on being able to maintain them. Certainly more with the main television programs. Then, I could tell I was starting to lose it.

That’s one of the things that — to be totally honest — terrifies me about walking back into a classroom after having been out of it for so long in various administration positions: that I will have truly lost a connection to the students. I’m not sure how to engage with young people now in a way that gives them the examples they need.

But I can still do it in my ‘teaching’ now, which takes the shape of outreach to universities, because they’re more my peers. They need the cultural referents as much as other kinds of connection, and I have those at my fingertrips.

On Teaching to Different Kinds of Audiences

KB: What are the differences between teaching to peers vs teaching to people that would identify as students?

JT: Let me separate first, students in a university vs academics in a university and the kind of work I’m doing now. One of the things I’ve been thinking about in advance of this chat is the kind of teaching I do now. One part of my job is going out to universities or to academic organizations to talk to people who want to know how better to understand and be successful at getting Australian Research Council grants. What I do now is kind of equivalent to teaching but it’s to my peers.

With the university student, I would typically demonstrate how fascinating and exciting I found this material to be and use that as a means to bring them along. Obviously, it doesn’t work every time. But, by and large, I could make it work.

Now, my audiences are, I guess one of the best ways to describe them, is skeptical. These are my peer audiences. They know how competitive ARC grants are and they’re skeptical about their abilities to get them and they’re skeptical about my abilities to tell them anything they don’t already know.

I work very hard to get past that skepticism with tips and tricks, changes to the rules, ways to shape your wonderful project to engage your assessors.

The more transparent I can make an otherwise opaque system, the more likely audience members are to feel that they got something out of a presentation. And that’s my aim in my current form of teaching: to make the system much more transparent than it often is. I try to make it seem doable without ever hiding how low, shall we say, the success rates actually are.

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In a classroom, the people who sit in in the chairs matter.

KB: Are there any prep or structural differences in your approach to teaching peers?

JT: I have to leave a lot of time for questions. I’m not one of those people that insists on presenting and then leaves time for questions. I always insist that if you’ve got a question, you ask it as I’m going through. But it always takes a while for the first person to get the courage to put their hand up.

That’s not something that you can always do in, say, a lecture context. But, what is interesting, even with colleagues, is that I still get that fear of asking the dumb question. That fear doesn’t go away. You don’t want to be embarrassed in front of your peers.

Tune in next post for the second half of our conversation!

 

Being a Student Again: How Taking Classes Made Me Reflect on Teaching Classes

I feel like I’m in high school again, and it’s been an unexpectedly good thing for thinking about teaching.

I recently moved to Montreal and decided to take French classes. As I filled out the online registration forms, I thought to myself, “A little morning routine, a little french, and the possibility of interaction with other humans in the brand new city I’ll be google-mapping my way through? This is a great settling-into-a-new-city-plan.”

I wasn’t wrong: the classes have been immensely useful for grounding my first couple of weeks. They have also been unexpectedly helpful for thinking about my own teaching.

Here are the top three things that being a student has got me thinking about:

The Vulnerability of Learning

As a kid, I was in French immersion – a Canadian public school program where students from non-French speaking families take most of their elementary and high school classes in French. So, technically, my French is decent. Practically, it is not.

Trying to find my knowledge of French has been felt like being in the movie Inside Out: I spend my morning classes running around my brain, searching for old memories. Much to my dismay, it seems that many of these memories have been dumped to make room for new skills and knowledge.

To the shock of no one that knows me: I have a robust set of feelings when I’m not instantly good at something. So, when my teacher hands back my homework, and I see the 1003 minor grammar errors, I can’t help but wince a little.

Other than the hit to my ego, this has been a critical reminder of the the vulnerability of not knowing, of not understanding, of trying but not getting it right the first, second, or even the third time. I try to acknowledge this vulnerability when I teach but sometimes I forget how amplified it can feel for students.

Exams

Three weeks ago, I could not have told you the last time I took a midterm. That changed, last Wednesday. And, much to my surprise, I think that’s a good thing.

As a university instructor, I know that tests can be good evaluative and pedagogical tools, and I do incorporate final exams into some courses. But, I also know that tests favour certain learning styles over others and can prompt huge levels of stress and anxiety for students. In the context of rising mental health crises across American and Canadian post-secondary campuses, the stakes of stress and anxiety can be concrete and significant. It doesn’t help that, even when test-related stress is contained to the classroom, students generally hate exams.

Actual archival evident that I took a French midterm some time after high school.

In my French class, I was no different. I did not want to take my midterm. In fact, I briefly considered refusing to do so (me: at my most mature).

After having a little chat with myself, however, I decided to write the midterm. This meant I had to study. And, you know what? Studying prompted me to engage with the material in a way I’d been avoiding: I went back and reviewed some of the core concepts; I memorized the rules; I did mock exercises.

Did it bring back a whole bunch of weird want-to-succeed-in-evaluative-contexts feelings? Why, yes it did. Did it also light a fire under my learning feet? Most definitely.

On Mattering

As a university instructor, I’m aware that, within the context of a classroom, I am in a position of power. As a student, I am am actively reminded of how this power looks and feels.

The teacher – who is like every french teacher I can remember: energetic, kind, passionate, precise – is the point toward which I, and all the other students, are oriented physically and intellectually. And, boy oh boy, do we notice everything she does:

  • I notice that she tends to stand on the right side of the white board (likely so she doesn’t have to cross when she needs to start to write a sentence). This means that she often unintentionally favours the right side of the class, who are physically closer to her.
  • Another student feels that she pays more attention to those with stronger language skills.
  • Another student feels her pedagogy is better than any of the other instructors they’ve had.

Even for adults with diverse areas of expertise and experiences (the class of twelve includes adult learners from 7 different countries who work in a range of fields from health care to hospitality to academia) the teacher matters, and that mattering often articulates in very embodied, and sometimes very emotional, ways.


I already knew all of these things, of course.

After all, I’ve spent big chunks of my adult life as a student. And, even though I’m done with formal coursework (phew!), I’m an active learner. I take professional development workshops, praxis sessions, and all kinds of classes. And not all of these classes are in areas where I excel either. I, Kelsey Blair The Historically Inflexible, take yoga classes.

But being in a semi-intensive, pass-or-fail class with medium-level stakes for most of the students has reminded me, at a bodily level, of what it feels like to be a student.

This, in turn, has reinforced something I already suspected: being a student, particularly in moderate- to high-stakes environments, is invaluable to the development of my teaching practice.