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.


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.


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.


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.

Theatre and performance vs the “crisis” in the Humanities (warning: this post requires you to think about doing something!)

Friends, I am excited to share with you a call for papers I’ve created for the fantastic, UK-based journal Research in Drama Education.


The issue I’m guest-editing will appear in August 2019; its purpose is to gather exciting, stimulating, but above all useful best practices from around the world that demonstrate how theatre and performance makers, scholars, teachers, and community partners are helping to rewrite what has become our “common sense” refrain: …that Humanities schools, faculties, and programs at our colleges and universities are being marginalized by business- and STEM-forward administrators and government pressures, and that there is nothing we can do about it but grouse and cry while the ship sinks.

I know this “common sense” state of affairs is not really the case – that it is, rather, another situation where we have all swallowed a load of depressing Kool-Aid, largely out of sheer bone-weariness. (Fighting endless battles simply to demonstrate one’s relevance has a tendency to make one rather tired, and longing for a drink.)

How do I know this? Because I also know too many people (friends and colleagues alike; friends of friends and colleagues of colleagues) who are busy doing something, right now, about it. And even sometimes succeeding.


What this issue wants to know is exactly what that doing-something-about-it looks like. It wants to hear from those of us in higher education’s theatre and performance (and dance and music…) trenches, but it also wants to hear – very much wants to hear – from administrators who have insights to share.

Above all, it argues that theatre and performance programs have an obligation to be at the heart of the 21st century, “neoliberal” university, not at its periphery – and it wants to know how to make that claim a “common sense” reality.

There are a lot of ways to contribute to this issue – I’m inviting scholarly articles, shorter case study articles, as well as creative expressions, dialogues, and a variety of things that might be web-only friendly. We are fortunate that RiDE has the capacity to make this issue a cross-platform publication, and that its audience is helpfully international and very diverse.

Below, I’m reproducing the issue’s core research questions, as well as information about how to submit a proposal (due 1 October 2017).

I’m also including a link to the full CFP, on RiDE‘s website, here.

I know many of you will have seen this come across your desks already – if you could take a moment now to forward this on to anyone you’ve thought perhaps might like to see it, but hasn’t yet seen it, I’d be grateful!

Sometime between now and October I’ll do another post on the issue’s topic, which will feature some personal stories about how I ended up getting the RiDE gig and coming up with this particular idea. I’ll also think ahead there a bit there to an event I’m planning in London, UK, in November, with connections to the issue.

Until then, questions most welcome!



Theatre + Performance vs “The Crisis in the Humanities”: Creative Pedagogies, Neoliberal Realities*

*Call for papers in full available here: crde-cfp-crisis-in-humanities-2q2017

Research questions

  • What initiatives are already underway to ready schools and departments of theatre and performance for survival within the neoliberal university?
  • How are these initiatives received by stakeholders (students, teachers, artists, administrators, community partners) both inside and outside of institutional contexts?
  • How essential is interdisciplinary collaboration to the survival of theatre and performance labour in the neoliberal university? What models exist for such (successful) collaboration?
  • How essential is community collaboration to the survival of theatre and performance labour in the neoliberal university? What models exist for such (successful) collaboration?
  • Within the initiatives and collaborations thus detailed, what room exists for creative, performance-driven critique of neoliberal structures? How is that room made? When and how does making such space fall short of goals?

Logistical Details

The issue will blend scholarly articles of approximately 6000 words with evidentiary documents of 1500-2000 words (brief case studies; module/course outlines; measurements gathered on behalf of initiatives; etc) and online materials. The latter may include recorded interviews, classroom or other performance clips, or creative data dissemination. The issue aims for a rich mix of scholarly discussion about the issues at hand, and practical, re-usable models and materials.

Contributions are welcomed from artists, teachers, and researchers, but also from administrators, students, community partners, Teaching and Learning Centre staffers, or more. (If you feel members of your team, or other officials at your university, might like to contribute independently or alongside you, please circulate this CFP to them!)

Collaboratively-authored works are very welcome.

Time frame

Please send proposals and/or descriptions of 300 words (for any of the above categories of contribution), along with a 150-word biography, to Kim Solga by 1 September 2017.

On why I edit

In the midst of a really rough week last week, something amazing happened: I received an email telling me that I, along with my dear friends and collaborators D.J. Hopkins and Shelley Orr from San Diego State University, have won the 2016 ATHE award for Excellence in Editing, possibly the highest honour that academic editors in theatre and performance studies can receive. We are the recipients for our joint collections Performance and the City (2009) and Performance and the Global City (2013), both of which were published by Palgrave MacMillan.

I was so excited, truly excited, about this news that I bounced up and down in my kitchen for about five minutes, freaking out the dog + cat. I was the kid who burst the piñata! I felt like, after years of swinging and pounding and swatting, I’d finally broken in, and caught the windfall.

In other words: this news was not just welcome, and not just thrilling; it was also incredibly validating. Because editing is some of the hardest, most valuable, and yet most under-sung labour in the academic world. At last, I – we! – were being sung about.


Those of you reading from university offices know exactly what I’m talking about, and are probably nodding along right now.

For those who are not so familiar with it, here’s the standard argument that all scholars hear – usually from the time we are graduate students – about why not to edit.

  • First: it does not ‘count’ for enough. It barely counts as an article; it certainly doesn’t count as a monograph! Editing stuff won’t get you tenure, or promoted. Stop right now! (This is because edited books aren’t generally thought to be as rigorously peer-reviewed as journal articles or single-author books. Never mind that I’ve had book chapters better peer-reviewed than my monograph was. Never mind that all of my edited books have been shepherded carefully by at least one, and usually two, senior academics in my field, who have read multiple drafts of the manuscript. Never mind that working with an academic editor IS built-in peer review!)
  • Second: it’s a slog. Lots of cats to herd! Academics are shit at meeting deadlines (me too, trust me), and many of our colleagues do not write all that well (it’s an open secret). To make a good edited book, you’ve got to do a lot of invisible labour making other peoples’ stuff better. That can be exhausting and demoralising.
  • Third: it takes a lot of time – time away from, you know, your own brilliant writing that you could otherwise be working on, in article or monograph form, in order to get tenure or promoted, and thereby come to inhabit a sense of yourself as a Productive Academic. I call that The Vicious Circle of Orwellian Academic Logic.

(As if by clockwork irony, last week I was reminded of all of these arguments by this – really fairly balanced – piece in University Affairs. Plus ça change!)

Are these arguments valid? Sure – in the business-as-usual version of the academy. But what if we chose not to subscribe to business as usual? What if we flipped things around for a minute, and examined the alternate view of the academy that could emerge from valuing academic editing differently?


Deej and I in January 2016 in Toronto; we generally prefer the ‘alt’ approach!

Here are the benefits of academic editing, as I believe and invest in them. These are the reasons I have edited five books over the course of the last ten years, and they are the reasons I’ve just taken up the post of Editor in Chief of the journal Theatre Research in Canada/Recherches théâtrales au Canada.

  • First: edited books often get a lot more traction than monographs – even good, popular academic monographs. I am far, far better known for my edited work than for the monograph I published in 2009; simply put, way more people have read bits and pieces of my edited books than even know I wrote the damn monograph! If we’re talking about ‘impact’, about generating a scholarly conversation and thereby shaping the future of our discipline, edited books often do this far more effectively than monographs.

(Why? I’m not sure. My guess is because they include so many more voices, so many diverse perspectives. They are crowd-sourced knowledge.)

  • Second: editing is collaborative scholarship at its finest. From the moment I approach a colleague to write on a specific topic, through the process of helping that colleague build their argument, to the final shaping and editing as we refine, hone, and nuance – me pressing and questioning, suggesting and rewording along the way – what we are doing is working together to create a dynamic argument about a scholarly topic compelling to us both. That kind of collaboration is all too rare in the academy; most academic work is profoundly ego-driven. (Regardless of how many conferences I schlep my papers to, I’m always anxious about feedback. Will they like me? Will they hate it? If I get good advice that might help make the work better, will I be able to take it? Usually, I just feel pinned to the spotlight, in front of the audience, wanting nothing more than for my quiet, lonely work to be pronounced ‘good’ already.)
  • Third: editing is teaching; it is a marriage of research and pedagogy that is incredibly satisfying and insanely productive. I’ve worked with a lot of graduate students over the course of my editing career, because I remember all too well what learning to turn my course essays and dissertation chapters into articles was like: harrowing, embarrassing, realising that I had no idea how to structure the argument of an article, where to put the damn lit review, how to articulate my position with force and without too much repetition (of my own ideas or others’). And I remember with so much joy and gratitude the work invested by my own writing mentor – herself an exceptional editor! – Joanne Tompkins. Thanks to Jo, I discovered my writing voice – she gave me the greatest gift a teacher can give a new scholar. And our shared learning happened around research topics important to us both; that’s true academic interdisciplinarity, if you ask me.

This summer I’m going through the process of seeking promotion to full professor; that’s the highest rank an academic in North America can achieve. According to the business-as-usual academic story, though, my case is somewhat dicey because I do not have a second ‘full’ monograph. (My second solo-authored book is Theatre & Feminism – a short book for students that is set to become the most widely-read piece of work I’ll ever produce. And I’m damn proud of it.) But I’ve decided to go up anyway – on the strength of all the editing I’ve done, and in honour of all the benefits it has had for me as a scholar and teacher and for the many colleagues and students with whom I’ve collaborated. I’m hoping to set an important precedent in my department, and at my school – and thereby help to shift, just a little bit, the story of academic business-as-usual.

Cross your fingers for me!

With huge thanks to all who supported our nomination, and to ATHE for the honour,


Guest Post: In Search of “It” in the Performance of Teaching

By Emerie Whitman-Allen

As I worked towards my Master’s Degree in Education, I was repeatedly observed teaching lessons with various groups of students – demo lessons with undergrads, mini-lessons with suburban ninth graders, and student-teaching units with urban juniors and seniors. Through this process, I was honing my abilities to design effective lessons that identified meaningful content standards and assessed tangible skills, all while learning how to control classroom dynamics and keep my students “on task” despite my youth and timidity as an authoritarian. There were resources to help me improve in these areas whenever instinct didn’t preemptively lead the way. One thing I never had to question, though, was my ability to engage students through my presence at the front of the room. Professors and mentors alike would comment, “Those kids are engaged with you and hanging on what you have to say – which is great, because we can’t teach that.” Another common accolade: “You’ve got ‘it,’ thank goodness, so you don’t have to worry there!” When my lesson assessment was misaligned to my objectives, or when I gave unclear instructions, a resource was seamlessly doled out with the reassurance that if I “read this and keep reflecting, all that stuff will fall into place with practice.”

On the contrary, a peer in my Master’s cohort was told, “Your lessons are solid and your assessments are right-on. But there’s something you need to work on in terms of engagement-factor. The kids just aren’t there with you – it’s a little forced… or awkward… or… something.” Deflated, she would ask, “What did I do? What did I say?”, at which our professors would stall with pained expression and reply, “It’s hard to describe. It’s just… off.” For her, there were no teacher-self-help books or recommended strategies to attempt. Despite her natural ability (beyond my own) to plan and implement a structurally solid lesson, there seemed to be a set of teacher-skills that were un-definable and nebulous that my peer could not grasp. What is the “it” that I supposedly already had, and where did it come from?

I think it’s important to note that none of my professors equated this “it” to my personality type – indeed, the peer I mentioned has a very similar, extroverted personality to my own. So how do we, as teachers and teacher-trainers, account for “it”?

This year, I asked my students (7th graders) at the end of the final semester what teacher skills they felt are my strongest, and which need the most improvement. In their written, anonymous surveys, they identified my weakest skill as the same I’ve struggled with since becoming a teacher four years ago. Without a word bank or example answers provided, they recognized that I struggle to discipline students who are breaking the rules. (Every year I work on this, and will continue to attempt new strategies to improve in this area.) My strongest areas, in their own words, are that I’m “really good at ‘connecting’ with students,” at “being convincing and open minded because [I put] a lot of enthusiasm into what [I say],” and, perhaps most succinctly, that I’m “a very engaging person.”

Just like those professors years ago, my students seem to be able to name this thing “engagement” or “connection” without needing to define or quantify it. While I’m glad that I’m good at it, I wonder about my colleagues who might be described similarly to my Master’s cohort peer – those who aren’t automatically lauded for their “engagement” and who are, thus, always on the hunt for it or resigned to their lack of it. Aspects of engagement have been described and dissected by education researchers into multiple dimensions and characteristics – some researchers cite cognitive, behavioral, and emotional engagement as separate characteristics, while other researchers in the recent past have attempted to break engagement down into more sub-categories so that an additional “academic” aspect may be explored. It is evident immediately upon examining contemporary research on the subject that much of the defining and redefining of these terms is unclear, highly inferential, and impossible to fully segregate (see Fredericks).

Continuing to redefine and measure engagement in these conflicting and confusing terms is both redundant and counter-productive. Just as finding new ways to test students through standardized national exams does not result in our students actually learning more, finding new ways to test and measure engagement does not result in students becoming more engaged. Quite frankly, we won’t make progress in this area if we continue to obsess over what student engagement is in this broad sense of the word while neglecting its origins and reasons for its specific occurrences. Instead of rejoicing that we’ve found schools where students are typically more engaged, or communities where school engagement is nurtured from home, it’s time we focus on what specific things happen in the classroom that prompt and sustain that engagement so that learning can happen. We need to separate overall school engagement from more specific classroom engagements so that we can be sure we are doing whatever it takes on a daily, even hourly basis to encourage attentive, reflective learning that “connects” our students to the instruction (as my students’ comments bring to light).

The most direct route to examining how engagement is affected in students is to look at the teachers themselves; strangely, however, the research on engagement has so far not focused much on teachers, preferring instead to think about instructional styles or learning models. Whereas students in a particular classroom can come from a variety of family backgrounds, cultural identities, and skill levels, the common denominator is always the teacher. Due to the nature of my school, which draws its population from a broad, regional demographic, the student body reflects a variety of socio-economic, cultural, and educational backgrounds; it is thus conceivable that my presence in the classroom is the only controlled variable, the only thing that unifies the experiences in the room – aside from the school’s culture itself. We already know that a student’s positive interaction with his teacher supports more learning, but we don’t seem to know what type of student-teacher relationships do this best (Ryan; Wentzel). We also don’t seem to know the degree to which students are engaged within the current engagement-measurement scales while interacting with those teachers, and what specific tasks or teaching activities are prompting these various levels of engagement (Fredericks). Pursuing answers to these questions would provide a more specifically focused framework that could practically impact teacher training and practice.

It’s true that some researchers have attempted to isolate particular teaching activities in order to analyse their engagement, but teacher behavior isn’t usually discussed in connection to these activities’ success (Hunzicker). This makes the lesson itself, as opposed to its implementation and delivery, the focus of study, leaving the teacher’s specific actions and interactions (along with people like my Master’s peer) by the wayside. This in turn reinforces a problematic assumption, as I see it, that engaging instruction comes solely from instructional design as opposed to instructional delivery. In other words: the current trends in the research suppose that a prescribed classroom activity has an inherent engagement value that is separate from the lesson’s implementation (which might take into account the teacher’s style and psychological impact of her particular delivery choices). I don’t think most practicing teachers would agree that their delivery has no impact at all on student engagement, no matter how “solid” the lesson plan reads on paper. It’s as if the research has resisted naming any of the teacher’s behaviors as “engaging” and is instead focused only on describing instructional designs that are “engaging” – perhaps in an effort to seem egalitarian. Yet, as my peer’s experience demonstrated, the end result of such a focus is actually both exclusive (you don’t have “it”), and hopelessly depressing.

Let me be clear: I do not disagree with the many observations we’ve come to accept as fact regarding instructional design practices. Literature has stated conclusively and repeatedly that student-centered learning, for example, is a more ideal classroom arrangement than teacher-centered learning activities (Valentine). However, because student-centered learning activities are not always possible and not always the best method for delivering particular types of instruction, teachers should be given more tools and strategies to succeed in engaging students through teacher-centered activities as well. Even a fully student-centered activity often requires a teacher’s introduction or facilitation of a wrap-up discussion of sorts. If our students are capable of making meaningful, strong connections to their learning during student-centered activities, it seems such a waste to dismiss any possibility of harnessing that engagement at other times as well. However, the harnesser, in this case, is the teacher – which means we will have to accept that there is something (“it,” perhaps) that a teacher must practice in order to perform effectively in that role.

We’ll never know what “it” is if we are not willing to break down a teacher’s actions, voice, manner, “connectivity,” perhaps their very soulfulness, in the classroom. We will need to focus on the teacher in ways that may be uncomfortable at first – it might feel very teacher-centered of us to analyze these behaviors with such a close lens. However, teacher-training programs already acknowledge that a skilled teacher is, among other things, a controlled force that is able to tap into students’ engagement-potential effectively. Our willingness to break these “engaging” features down (whatever they are) – comparing and contrasting them with the features of other “less-engaging” teachers – may result in some meaningful discoveries that impact how we train teachers in the future.

The question must be asked, then: where do we begin describing instructional delivery without talking about instructional design, and how do we avoid falling into a trap of just asking students whether or not they “like” their teachers, which could very easily result in us equating “engaging teachers” with particular personality types (Fredericks)? There must be a middle ground that can illustrate teaching in a way that is not only specific and empirically sound, but also grounded in literature that is qualitative and descriptive. Could those descriptors translate into skills that are actually trainable – or were my professors correct in asserting that “it” can’t be taught?

I have a suggestion of how to do this – because the 7th grader I quoted above did not say that I am good at engaging her, she said that I’m “an engaging person.” Is this sort of like saying that I’m an engaged person? Might we then shift the academic conversation from student engagement to teacher engagement, and attempt to describe those “connectivity” pieces in the same ways we have attempted to describe our students in the research thus far? I’m probably not alone in thinking that teachers should be cognitively and emotionally engaged in their practice, which should reveal visible behavioral engagement. Those behaviors, I suspect, would reflect passion, trust, empathy, and vulnerability, among other things perhaps, all of which are emotional qualities already valued in teachers according to the research (Skinner). To further illustrate and define those nebulous skills that a teacher employs, we could even build upon these frameworks with mechanisms grounded in neurology, psychology, and sociology. All of these pieces contribute to a teacher’s affectation, voice, and connectivity with her students – which have not been synthesized into a solidly defined, measured indicator on any teacher-rubric I’ve seen.

We might also productively look at performance studies to help explain what passionate/empathetic/vulnerable/social –“soulful”– qualities we see in teachers who are connected to their students. I’ve thought a lot about how the performance of an “excellent actor” can stir emotional investment and sincere feelings of connection in an audience, just as we’d like to see amongst our students during a lesson. When students feel connected to what they’re learning, and even emotionally touched or accessed by the instruction (whether in a lecture or student-centered activity), they are going to hear it at a deeper level and learn more from it. Good actors know how to do this because they are trained to expose their own souls on stage on cue (this seems to be that same soulfulness coming up again that I mentioned earlier). Audience members who attend a performance are often willing to submit to that experience – willing to “go there” and suspend their disbeliefs, inciting an emotional commitment to what’s happening.

Of course, positioning students as audience members may result in us characterizing them as the passive receivers of knowledge – just as the negative image of teacher-centered learning often conjures. But I don’t think this is actually an accurate representation of a student “audience”. More than spectators, engaged students might best be likened to Augusto Boal’s spect-actors.

Who is more engaged than the audience with what the actor is saying or doing during a performance? The other actors sharing the stage – who must, by their very job description, be present, listening, and connecting soul-to-soul with their colleague in that moment of storytelling. Just as researchers have agreed that students are most “engaged” when active in their learning, perhaps we should visualize the student as being on stage with the teacher, as a co-performer. Actors who are deemed “excellent” are usually described in terms of their presence on stage – their perceived ability to listen and respond to their fellow actors in a way that reveals a feeling of true connection. A good actor isn’t just… there, reciting lines into a vacuum. Soulful connection requires emotional investment in what’s going on, active processing of what’s said and done, and a visible reflection of hearing, seeing, thinking, and feeling.

Few of us interact in real, day-to-day life with the same conscious, outwardly shining presence and interactive response that we see on stage between a group of “excellent actors” who are exposing their souls in an effort to seek and perform their true connection in the moment. But imagine if we did!

Imagine if we were able to measure and train that visible soulfulness, so that we, as teachers, were able to get a little closer to that experience with our students during a lesson. A teacher-centered lesson will never replace one that is student-centered, but a teacher-centered lesson that can push students “on stage” in the way I’ve described above, through soulful teaching, may be the next-best thing. Imagine how instruction would be different if a teacher-centered activity could more closely elicit a student-centered experience in response. This imagining may, if explored critically, help us to close the engagement gap between teacher-centered and student-centered learning activities, and open up new possibilities for teacher-centered instruction in the future.

If we, as teachers, know how to engage our students as co-performers, as if they are on stage with us, perhaps we will be able to both alleviate our concerns about teacher-centered activities and also characterize better what the teacher is doing to effectively play the part and soulfully engage with students during instruction. I want all of my students to feel involved in learning even when they are not the physical center of each activity, but that means that I must know how to pull them up on stage, so to speak, in my lessons – and it also means that they must be primed for this experience. At the beginning of the year, I tell my students that they are responsible for their learning because all I can do is teach them – that is, they are the ones who have to do the learning. But I’m sure there is more I can do to promote this idea that we are all actors building the scene together. After all, in a classroom, shouldn’t the teacher be learning from her students, too?

If we can explicitly structure that expectation in our classrooms so that students are given the trust to help guide the scene’s creation, and teachers are given the training to support that process, whether the activity is structurally teacher-centered or student-centered, perhaps we will connect more and better, soul-to-soul, on the classroom stage and promote deeper, more engaged learning for teachers and students alike.


Emerie Whitman-Allen is a teacher of communication, meta-cognition, and media at the Dayton Regional STEM School in Ohio. She has presented at conferences and led workshops with teachers and administrators about project-based learning, as well as the Six Thinking Hats critique method and STEM Foundations curriculum, both of which she has developed during her career at the STEM School. Before working there, she taught pre-primary and elementary art education at Discovery Montessori in Jacksonville Beach, Florida, and high school English conversation in Seoul, South Korea. She earned a BA in Communication (Radio, Television & Film) and Master of Science in Education and Social Policy from Northwestern University. Her current research interests focus on instructional delivery as it relates to theatrical performance, and the elusive cultivation of positive classroom culture.


(Visit Emerie online here.)


Moving on from teaching

Easter holiday is over; two more weeks of term break until revision week, and then the exam term begins. I won’t be teaching during exam term, but I will have plenty of responsibilities on campus to break up my research days. Which means that now – while we’re still on break, and as we head into summer – is the time for me to make my research plan for the next few months.

I find the shift from “teaching mode” into “research mode” very challenging. It helps to take a week or so off – I learned that several years ago, when I managed to fritter May away doing heaven knows what, and woke up in June realising I wasn’t rested and had accomplished almost nothing. But even with the week off behind me this year, I’m feeling those old familiar anxieties: how to prioritise what needs getting done in the short term (conference papers; chapter draft), medium term (journal article; book proposal; another chapter draft), and long term (stack of reading sneering at me from the other side of the desk; catching up on developments in key journals; plenary paper for the fall; more work on the book…). How to organise each day so that I maximise the time at my desk and don’t resent the dog, or not being outside, or not being on my bike. How to just get started. Sigh.

I spent part of this past weekend strategising around this problem. I’ve decided to adopt the “less-is-more” approach that Tracy Issacs wrote about in January (read it here). It strikes me as an ideal way to manage the paired anxieties that conspire to rob me of productivity: worry that I will not accomplish my set tasks, coupled with fear preventing me from even starting those tasks as a result.

Using less-is-more as a template, I came up with the following goals for myself for each day until exam term begins at the end of April. I’d really love to hear if others have related – or even totally unrelated – strategies they’d be willing to share; I’ll update you on my progress keeping to these goals over the course of the month.

1. Start the morning with a stimulating “breakfast.”

I’ve decided to begin each day by reading a journal article over coffee and breakfast. My friend, mentor, and colleague at the University of Guelph, Ric Knowles, once told me he tried to start the day this way – reading just one article from a recent journal issue, and often one not in his area of expertise, so it was a fun task as well as a work task. I found myself adopting a version of this exercise over the past few months, reading newly released journal issues on my subway commute to and from work. I found I could get through most of a good-sized article on the way there and back, and reading on my iPad I was able to highlight key ideas on-screen (via Adobe Reader, which isn’t perfect but works very well for articles downloaded from my library’s website and saved as a PDF), which I then copied and pasted into my reading journal once I got home. Just because I’m not commuting right now doesn’t mean I can’t carry on with this useful habit; my aim will be to read for about an hour every morning – roughly the time I would normally spend reading The Guardian or The Globe and Mail.

2. Pick the task that scares you most, and stare it down – for 30 minutes.

I’ve been reading for years about how effective just a few minutes a day of writing can be for those of us whose long-term research agendas involve lengthy book projects (this brief piece, by Richard M. Felder [2008] on the always excellent Tomorrow’s Professor blog, is one of my favourites – type “900” in the box at the top left of the screen to see Richard’s post). I’ve decided to adapt this strategy for my spring labour in this way: I’ll nominate one project per week that requires sustained attention, and work for 30 minutes per day on that project alone, without breaks. This work might be writing; it might be collating reading materials; it might be finding those reading materials. Anything goes, as long as it’s related to the project at hand. My hope is that, at the end of a week of this kind of labour, I’ll be in the flow of my nominated project’s work and hungry to carry on with it. Then, the following week, I can do that with less stress, and nominate another slightly terrifying project to spend 30 minutes on per day.

3. Read for pleasure, and work.

I am bad at this. I have stacks of books beside my bed, stacks of books on the shelf above my desk, and a shelf of books on my “theory and criticism” bookshelf that all want me to pay attention to them. Some of these books are purely for pleasure (I’ve recently really enjoyed Canada, by Richard Ford, and am about to start Alice Munro’s Dear Life); some are for both work and pleasure (like Jackie Bratton’s fabulous The Making of the West End Stage); and some are books related to my own current book project which I frankly should have read long ago (Toril Moi’s Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism), and which I’d be looking forward to reading if I wasn’t so nervous about writing the damn book at the end of it all… Anyway. I’ve decided that I should end my work day with this kind of reading, in the same way I’d like to start the day by reading exciting new work published in the journals I follow. So one hour per day, at the end of the work day, will be for reading one book from the aforementioned stacks. I’ll read hour by hour until it’s done. Then I’ll move on to a new one.

4. Build in time for busy-work.

While I’ve been composing this post half a dozen emails have landed in my inbox asking me to do stuff: organise a Skype meeting; read article proofs online; write a reference letter; vet applications for our MA program. This stuff needs to get done, but it can easily eat a day. (See my previous post, on how admin labour affected my teaching this past semester.) It might need less than an hour; it might need a bit more than an hour. But, thinking incrementally in the spirit of less-is-more, I hereby offer busy-work only one hour of my time per day until the exam term (when it will necessarily increase, along with the admin load that term dictates).

5. Walk the dog.

Emma face screen door

She does have this most pernicious way of staring at us from the corner of her eye when she wants a walk. Which is almost all the time. Half an hour for lunch, then half an hour for a walk: sounds very civilised to me! And, if there’s time and light at the end of the day, I will get on my bike.

Fingers crossed!