Half term pulse check (part 1)

Reading week! Also known as: Fly to Jamaica Week. For me, though, it’s almost always Fly to London Week. I’m in the UK right now for work meetings, plenty of theatre-going, and, of course, catching up with the friends (actually, more like family) I left behind when I moved from Queen Mary back to Western in August 2014.


Getting away for reading week has a number of advantages (for faculty and students alike). It’s necessary, I think, to get physically as well as mentally away from the classroom for a time, just to check in with ourselves and make sure we’re taking care of the needs that often go ignored in the term. (Proper nutrition! Proper sleep! Game of Thrones! OK, so I am so not a GofT person, but I know all y’all know what I mean.) For me, reading week is always a pleasure in part for the excuse it affords to check out of my head and back into my body for a few days. But it’s also a pleasure because it provides a welcome, comparatively relaxed opportunity for me to take the pulse of the classes I’m teaching and work out if anything needs tweaking or changing as we head into Term 2, Part 2.

This winter term I’m teaching two classes at Western: 20th Century Theatre (an English and Writing Studies course), and Performance Beyond Theatres (aka Performance Studies, a core course in our Theatre Studies program). 20th Century Theatre is a full year class, and I invited the students in that group to fill out an anonymous survey at the mid-point (Christmas break); I then made micro-adjustments after going through their responses with my TA Meghan before we returned in January. In Performance Beyond Theatres, though, THIS is the midpoint, so I did a quick survey with them last Thursday, specifically focused on the blended learning experiment we’ve been doing in that class this semester.

[What’s blended learning? Click here.]

This post is about that experiment, the students’ feedback on how it’s gone so far, and my response to that feedback. (My next post will be about the utterly amazing artists’ talk we held in 20th Century Theatre just before the break – inspirational, fun, and provocative. Look forward to that one.)


Back at Christmas time, my friend and colleague from Brock University Natalie Alvarez and I embarked on an utterly mad teaching experiment. We decided to mingle our two undergraduate performance studies classes online in order to give our students on our separate campuses (about 200km apart in real space) some value-added learning opportunities. Why the hell? Well, for one thing, performance studies is still a relatively new phenomenon in Canada, and especially in undergraduate classrooms in Canada; Nat’s class and mine were thus not only unique birds, but they were also, kismet-like, happening at the same time. We therefore figured some kind of co-teach model would offer our students exposure to one another and to our shared expertise in the field as teachers and researchers, as well as an opportunity to collaborate on some pretty unique assignments. (We also hoped the experiment would set a precedent for blended learning opportunities in our separate departments going forward).

IMG_1925 (At right: Nat + me in Portland, before the blended learning madness overcame us.)

So, armed with optimism, courage, and a couple of drinks, we put together a shared course WordPress site (which needs to remain private, as it’s a place for learning, trial and error – no links here), created a short intro video explaining our logic to the class, and then committed to trial running the virtual portion of the course until reading week, when we would ask the students whether or not it was worth continuing.

The layout of our blended course has looked like this so far. Each week, one or the other of us creates an online lecture based on the week’s readings. (Our course outlines are not fully identical, but our readings and our assignments are deliberately matched.) That lecture is meant to be about 25 minutes long, and it includes a task for the students to do in the remaining 25 or so minutes of what we call their “virtual hour”. For example, during the week on Michel de Certeau’s “Walking in the City,” I delivered an online discussion of the reading, focusing on three key ideas, and followed that with a video demonstration (starring my dear friend and collaborator D.J. Hopkins) of the task I set for the group for the week.

(My demo with D.J. during de Certeau week: a taste of the student experience.)

Following this virtual hour labour, our individual classes have met live each week for two further hours in order to work through both our reading materials and the materials each student produces as part of their task work. (Each student has also been required to comment on one other student’s task materials in order to demonstrate online engagement; typically, my students comment on work by Brock students, while the Brock students, who are part of a much larger group, look at one another’s materials as well as Western students’ materials in equal portions). In typical “flipped classroom” fashion, we try to use our face-to-face meetings to explore challenges in the readings, work through problems we’ve encountered in making sense of them, and nuance our thinking about our weekly subject matter as much as possible. (IE: no lectures here.)

I’ve personally found our online work really gratifying, humbling, and instructive. It’s been a significant challenge for me to learn how to use video tools in a not-crap way (I’ve been teaching myself Screenflow, for example, and have figured out how to do basic video editing in Quicktime as well). As I rarely lecture in my “real” teaching life, I’ve also found preparing and delivering the online lecture materials a useful way to rethink stagnating elements of my own pedagogical practice. (Yes, active learning friends: lecturing does have some real advantages.) The materials my students have produced in response to the weekly online lectures have been consistently of a high calibre, and some of them have been simply outstanding. I always find they contain insights worth pulling out in “real time” classes, and frequently those insights lead us on to further discoveries.

The process has not been without bumps, though. In part because Nat and I are in no way AV experts our online materials have often been posted to our shared website later than planned, and other hiccups have occasionally interrupted their sharing. (Last week Youtube blocked my lecture on Judith Butler because one of the videos I embedded, by the awesome feminist performance artist The Famous Lauren Barri Holstein, contained a Backstreet Boys audio track. Welcome to the neoliberal classroom!) On the content side, sometimes in class I’ve felt like we’re treading ground already familiar from the lecture, and I find I have to really challenge myself to get the balance between concept reinforcement and further concept development right. (This is much harder than it sounds.)

So what do the students think so far? On our mid-term surveys we asked three questions:

  1. What have you found productive/useful about the virtual hour labour?
  2. What have you found unhelpful, or unproductive?
  3. Would you like to continue with the virtual hour after reading week?

The feedback did not provide a consensus – half the students wanted to keep the virtual hour, while the other half did not! – but it did prove remarkably consistent. Most students said they found the online lectures helpful and clarifying – and we’d already sensed in class that this was the case. They also, however, said that the lectures were too long and that the tasks plus lecture consumed easily more than an hour (more like 1.5 hours, in fact) each week.

The students are not wrong: by the end of our first six weeks our online lectures had crept well beyond 30 minutes (my last one was 43 minutes! Yikes!), and of course Nat and I easily forgot (as many teachers do) that students always take much longer than we do to complete any learning task – they are simply less experienced learners and so inevitably slower. I found myself, a bit embarrassed, thinking back to my review of Martin Bickman’s book back in January, and to his comment about how he, at least, was never bored by his own lectures… without question Nat and I fell a bit in love with our own commentary on our favourite performance studies topics, and forgot about our stopwatches.

At the same time, though, we found ourselves thinking carefully about the implications of this feedback for our teaching more broadly. After all, what the students’ comments reveal is that there simply isn’t enough time in any given teaching week to cover complex topics as fully as we might like to do – or as we believe we need to do.

Now, of course, we all know this is true: it’s a teacherly cliche to complain there’s not enough time! It’s also easy to forget, however, that you’re blabbing on too long or trying to cover too much when you can just run long in a live classroom hour and pick up the following week where you left off; I’m as guilty as everyone else of bad classroom time management. To our surprise, however, our virtual hour sessions seemed to operate like a pace car, showing us in real time how little teaching time we’re actually working with – and thus how prudent we actually need to be with our answer to the all-important question, “how much is actually enough?”

So what’s next for the blended experiment? We’ve decided to try one more virtual hour, and in it to enforce a rigorous 20-minute online lecture cut-off time. (REALLY.) We’ll do a further, quick pulse-check at the end of that week and then make a decision about the remaining three sessions – online, or go live, according to a student vote. Whatever the results of that vote, though, I know I’ve taken from this first trial run a total classroom time-management recalibration, which can only be a good thing.



[Guest Post] A Crash Course in Time Management N.B., This is both Urgent and Important! ;)

By Melanie Mills, Research & Instructional Services Librarian, Western University

[This morning, Melanie – a longtime colleague and LIFE SAVER – visited my 20th Century Theatre class in order to offer some preliminary support around the time management exercise we are doing in conjunction with our research essay task this semester. More on that task forthcoming! Meanwhile, however, I’m thrilled to reproduce Melanie’s excellent blog post for our class website here… loads of cross-applicability for students and faculty alike. Enjoy!]


Time management is a tricky thing. Many of us – myself included – have managed to cope pretty well without any formal time management training or skill development. We keep track of where we need to be and when (e.g., scheduled lectures/tutorials, shifts at work, volunteer commitments) and somehow manage to cram all of the rest of life’s ‘stuff’ (e.g., school work, exercise, groceries, socializing) into the nooks and crannies that surround our fixed commitments. But wouldn’t be nice if we could do better than just ‘cope’ or ‘survive’? Wouldn’t it be kind of awesome to thrive? That is, to set yourself up to do your very best and to show others what you’re truly capable of? All without routinely pulling all-nighters or feeling guilty or embarrassed when you let someone, namely yourself, down?

Good time management involves setting goals, developing strategies to help you achieve those goals, identifying the tasks or activities that will help you enact the strategy, and prioritizing your time accordingly. It sounds like a lot, but it can be pretty straight-forward. Especially when you have the right tools to help.

This morning, we watched Oxford University’s Short Guide to Managing Your Time where we learned about the fixed (i.e., ‘rocks’) and fluid (i.e., ‘sand’) activities that make up the stuff of our lives. We also learned about the perpetual challenge of trying to fit it all in a finite amount of time. If we think about the work that entails academic research and writing, fixed elements might include: your assignment due date, essay length, and the minimum number of secondary sources you have been asked to use. Other fixed elements that may not be as obvious might include: the availability and demand for research sources (especially physical books in the library) and access to research support services (e.g., Research Help hours of service; Kim, Meghan, and/or Melanie’s time and availability for one-on-one support and guidance. The more fluid elements of academic research would include things like: when you decide to do your preliminary research and reading; how much time you decide to dedicate to these activities; and access to research resources and supports that are readily available at point of need (e.g., online, anytime), such as e-books and online journal articles. Generally speaking, you’ll have more ‘play’ with the fluid bits and much less control, if any, with the fixed elements.

If you think you could benefit from a bit of guidance identifying the various components of the research process, and how much time you might want to dedicate to each task or phase of the process, I would encourage you to consult Wilfrid Laurier University’s Assignment Planner. This tool essentially reverse-engineers the research process and provides guidance on how and when to engage in specific tasks and activities. This may be helpful to some of you, or not at all useful to others. I’ll leave it to you to decide and do with it what you will.

Now back to that video for a second…

The kind folks at Oxford also introduced us to something called a ‘priority matrix’. You may recall that after the video concluded, we plotted some of the discreet activities related to the Research Essay assignment for this course along the urgency and importance axes on the whiteboard at the front of the room. (For more information about the priority matrix, which is derived from something called The Eisenhower Box (Covey, 2004), Hekedemia.com has a pretty decent blog post on the subject here.) The goal of that exercise was to get you thinking about the relationship between and the time required for the various components that together comprise academic research. The ‘sweet spot’ on the priorities matrix grid is the upper right-hand quadrant: activities that are important but not urgent. If you can focus your energies and attention here, most of the time, you’re more likely to find that both your productivity and mental health will improve. (Caveat: this is my own, non-time-management-expert and anecdotal opinion only.)

I encourage you to use the concept of the priority matrix to help you plot and prioritize the research tasks that are ahead of you in the coming weeks. I know I’m going to use it…starting now!

Other handy tips from the aforementioned video to keep top of mind:

  • One Diary (or, Journal, or Online Calendar) — “Plant all your big rocks into your diary, and let your sand just fill in around them“. See fixed vs. fluid activities, above.
  • Timeblock — Assign a finite amount of time to each task. This will help keep you to keep focused, and will facilitate the all important balancing of multiple and competing priorities.
  • Cluster — Schedule similar activities at the same time. E.g., library research, reading, on-campus activities, etc. You’re likely to be efficient if you do this.

As I mentioned in class, the research process is iterative. As you begin your preliminary research and reading, and uncover more about your topic, your knowledge will increase and your own thoughts and ideas will shift, evolve, or even metamorphosize entirely. This is normal! In fact, this is one of the most rich and rewarding aspects of information discovery and original research. But. It. Takes. Time. Good researchers not only allow for this time, they plan for and vehemently defend it! This is something to take into account when you’re thinking of the various tasks associated with planning for and conducting academic research. I would highly recommend setting aside dedicated time over the course of the coming week or two and to prioritize your preliminary research and reading, as well as define your thesis. But then, you already knew that, because you’ve mapped it out on your priority matrix. Right?! 😉

I hope the above serves as a helpful refresher to what we covered in class this morning. Remember, time management is about taking responsibility for yourself, your goals, your actions and their subsequent outcomes.

You got this! 🙂



Melanie Mills is a Research & Instructional Services Librarian at Western University, where she has worked since 2004. Actively engaged in teaching, research, and service to the University, Melanie is a status-quo contrarian interested in the now and future role of libraries and of librarians in institutions of higher education.

On “Minding American Education”, by Martin Bickman*

*An Activist Classroom book review.

I have a big stack of books next to my bed – like most bookworm types, I’d wager. It never grows smaller; in fact, I think it’s inhabited by book-replicating trolls. Or perhaps it’s simply that I’m slow to move through each title, falling asleep as I read most nights.


(This image comes from shiyali.blogspot.ca.)

For the past few months, one of the titles on top of the pile has been Martin Bickman‘s 2003 volume, Minding American Education: Reclaiming the Tradition of Active Learning (New York: Teacher’s College Press). I finished reading it, at last, on the night before our first day back to class last week, and I’m eager to share my delight in it.


Minding American Education is a rich tapestry, though it’s woven from two quite different strands of thread. I’m tempted, even, to say that there are two different books here, addressed to two different kinds of audiences: scholars of American literature on one hand, and teachers of elementary, middle, and high school students on the other. Nevertheless, the two strands of Bickman’s discussion move together like warp and weft, producing a broad-ranging discussion of the longstanding, powerful, and imaginative tradition of active learning in American pedagogical theory and practice.


Bickman is a literary scholar as well as a teacher of teachers, and through the chunky middle of Minding American Education he is concerned primarily with American transcendentalism (the works of Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, the Thoreaus, Ralph Waldo Emerson, for example) and especially with the ways in which the transcendentalists reimagined education as an enterprise in knowledge-creation rather than rote learning or linear dissemination. Bickman notes carefully the rarity of this kind of reading of the transcendentalists: while we appreciate, as a rule, the literary and philosophical merits of these authors’ works, much less common is our appreciation for how these pioneering American thinkers were rebelling against ways of teaching and raising children that encouraged teachers to replicate themselves in their students, and through that process to replicate dominant culture tropes and ideologies.

220px-Henry_David_Thoreau_2 220px-Ralph_Waldo_Emerson_ca1857 Sarah_Margaret_Fuller_engraving-2

(A trio of transcendentalists: H.D. Thoreau, Emerson, Fuller)

As Bickman moves, in the latter half of the book, into the modern period and eventually into his own, contemporary experiences teaching literature at the University of Colorado, the writing becomes less philosophically dense and gains what for many teachers may be more familiar ground. Nevertheless, I want to recommend not skipping the early chapters that bring transcendental theory into collision with education praxis; as a scholar with absolutely no knowledge of the transcendentalist tradition, I was both fascinated and moved by Bickman’s account – not least because it offers a very different picture (active; activist; exploratory; non-hegemonic) of American education history than most non-Americans are likely to expect.

Bickman makes a strong and – today more than ever, as Donald Trump lumbers toward the 2016 Republican presidential nomination – valuable case for why and how exploratory learning enables the development of creative and nuanced minds, and along the way he rescues a number of now-outré education scholars (John Dewey!) from the dustbin, mining their writing and their practice for important tools and insights. This is my favourite thing about Minding American Education, in fact: it has no time for educational faddism. Although it is committed to a practice of active learning, to tracing the history of that practice in American thought and to advocating for its futurity at the heart of a robust American democracy, it does not regard active learning as a fad, and it does not treat student-centred learning as anything but a methodology with a long, rich lineage. At bottom, it is 165 pages of evidence that active learning is not a fad – it is an ethics, it is education for democracy, and it has been around for a very, very long time.

For all this historical insight, however, my favourite chapter in Minding American Education, and the one I recommend EVERYONE read, is the last one: “Enacting the Active Mind: Teaching English, Teaching Teaching.” Here, Bickman relates his experience teaching two particular courses at the University of Colorado, one of which was actually two courses in one: a graduate class on the theory and practice of teaching literature, organised around the team-teaching of an undergraduate class in which the graduate students acted as teaching assistants, active teaching participants, laboratory experimenters, and careful observers. (I first learned about Bickman’s work from my lodger, who himself took this course as a graduate student and raved to me about the experience.) Bickman’s discussion of this course is profound for its honesty: he explains the many stumbles he and his TA teams experienced along the way, and he explores carefully the ways they arrived at fixes, some of which worked better than others. This chunk of the chapter is a window on an exceptional, committed, activist teacher discovering new insights into his own teaching practice on one hand, and into the ways in which undergraduates learn, engage with, and inhabit literary texts on the other. It is both riveting and humbling to read.

In this final chapter Bickman is frank about the limited power of lecturing (“I blush to say it, but I was never tired or bored by my own lectures. And yet I know I cannot keep my mind from wandering after about a half hour of someone else’s lecture, no matter how good it is” [154]); about the value of reader response theory as a tool for empowering students (although, as he notes, that theory is often let down by its abstractions, imagining “the ideal reader” rather than trying to encounter real ones [153]); and about the value of writing before and during class time as key to students’ learning processes (“As we push our vague, fuzzy thoughts to precision, we find the very act of writing makes us articulate things we didn’t know we knew” [155]). In effect, he ends the book by mobilising his earlier, transcendental history, whose purpose now comes fully into view: what the transcendentalists have given him, and might by his example give us, is a firm sense of how to enact theory, test and experiment, learn and change as our students do, knowing that it is not our job to impose theory on them, but rather to build it with them.

This afternoon I had a snowy walk with a good friend who is teaching a contemporary critical theory course (a staple of all English Literature programs in North America) for the first time this year. He lamented that he’s found few resources online to help him troubleshoot common problems with teaching high theory to inexperienced undergraduates, and he concluded that it seems the scholars most likely to teach theory are those who tend to be least interested in pedagogy. While I’ve no doubt this is true often enough, Minding American Education suggests that it need not be – that in fact good theory and good teaching make exceptional fellow-travelers.


Check out a preview of the book here.




Back in the boat

Here’s what happens when Kim the teacher becomes (once more) a novice rower. Learning is for life, folks!

Fit Is a Feminist Issue

Kim with some of her Masters Rowing friends. Kim with some of her Masters Rowing friends.

Back in the spring I wrote about being incredibly inspired by the women of the Oxford and Cambridge rowing teams, who competed for the first time ever in 2015 on the Thames Tideway course that has been reserved for men for… well, forever. They got amazing publicity, thanks to their unadulterated awesomeness (and the novelty of it all), and I know I was not the only athlete out there moved by the sheer joy I saw on the faces of the Oxford squad when they won, or harrowed by the expressions of the strong and amazing Cambridge women who had to settle for second place.

Yet the tideway race (the first of many) moved me in particular because I was once an aspiring rowing champ, too. I was part of the University of Alberta crew in 1994-5, during my third year as an undergrad…

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Fret less, teach better – and feel better (is it really that easy?)

So it finally happened: I had my first epic fail of the term. Bertolt Brecht and Antonin Artaud were on the roster in Performance Theory this week, and on Tuesday our job was to get some preliminary definitions of their main stuff (“Epic Theatre” and “Theatre of Cruelty”, for those of you who are not already theatre geeks) on the table. We did a brainstorming exercise at the white board, which went fairly well. Then, according to my prep, we were supposed to do this:


Usually, I like a nice debrief. We talk about what we’ve been discussing/writing/sharing on our own/in groups/in pairs, and exciting new insights emerge. I jump around and get exercised about the groovy things the students have discovered; we laugh at my shenanigans, and then we learn.

This week, however, when I looked toward the white board the temperature inside my body suddenly rose a couple of degrees. It may have been that southwestern Ontario is unseasonably warm this week, and the building in which I work is ill equipped to handle autumnal climate fluctuations; or perhaps I had finally succumbed to a combination of Prof Flu and Plane Flu (I was in the UK last week; more on that in my next post). Anyway, the result was the same: blank of blanks.

Somehow, we got through Artaud. But I left Brecht – Brecht! My hero! – on the floor. A big, flat, dialectical dud in the middle of the sweaty room.

Class ended with me asking the students (all of whom are always so game to just go with what comes out of my mouth at any given moment – bless!) to free-write for two minutes in response to the Brecht reading they’d completed. I then ran away to my office and cowered behind the recycling bin for a bit, weeping. The pressure immediately to dive into my prep for Thursday and re-write ALL OF IT was overwhelming. But I resisted.

I’ve written before on the blog about epic classroom fails, and about the power of just throwing the damn prep away in order to improvise in the moment. I’ve also been concerned recently with “prep creep,” and with it my looming anxiety that I’m spending too much of my (increasingly precious) work time on prep. All of this occurred to me as I cringed at the memory of Tuesday afternoon.

There was a time when I would absolutely, without question, have gone home and rewritten the heck out of Thursday’s prep – anything to give myself the impression that I was “ready” to “fix” the problems that had arisen on Tuesday. Instead, this week – mindful of my crazy workload, of the power of prep creep, and of the fact that much of what went wrong on Tuesday had exactly nothing to do with my preparedness, and everything to do with what I was feeling (exhausted; a bit sick) – I simply said: fuck it.

I reminded myself: Thursday’s class is already pretty well planned. I’m going to forget about this one, bad day; I’m going to go back on Thursday and regroup; I’m going to do a version of what I’ve already planned, and it’s going to be Just Fine.

And here’s the shocker: it WAS fine!

I arrived to class Thursday afternoon and asked the students to share what they’d written at the end of Tuesday’s class. There was some really good material on offer, and we chatted for a bit about the ins and outs of Brecht’s theory. Then, I turned back to my prep, which called for us to watch two very different performances…

(Buffy is SO BRECHT. No, really.)

(Societas Raffaello Sanzio… freaking everybody out, but in a good way)

… and then to connect them to Brecht and Artaud, respectively. The students responded to the performances with enthusiasm, disquiet, and real verve. I trusted myself in the moment to make the connections I already knew were there, and to speak with passion about two theatre practitioners with whose work I’m well familiar. In short, I trusted the students, and I trusted me too. I glanced a few times at my prep document (of course I did!) but mostly I went off-piste, letting the students’ reactions guide our discussion. And it was absolutely fine. It was more than fine, in fact: we had a terrific class.

Prep is the thief of time: it is necessary, of course – but it’s also so, so easy to delude ourselves, on really bad days, into thinking that more and more prep will make a better and better class next time out. But will it? Is that “better” class really better for the students in the room, or does it just appear to be better from the perspective of the struggling teacher who strives to regain control over his or her feelings about the class, about how things are going?

This week I decided to wing it: partly out of desperation, and partly out of a small confidence that I knew my stuff well enough to get away with winging it. In the process, I realised that I need to trust myself more, full stop. The prep is there as a fail-safe, a backup, but let’s face it: I’m well trained in this work, and I need to be confident that I can communicate it to students – and have compelling conversations with them about it! – without a whole bunch of paperwork, and anxiety, getting in the way.

Why it’s taken so long for me to absorb this fundamental truth I have no idea; I chalk it up to the power of imposter syndrome. But truly, it’s been such a relief to realise, this week, that I did NOT need to do more work to salvage the class; all I needed to do was show up, be present and committed, and bring what I already had on hand to the table.