Pedagogy and Activism in Fall 2020

Hello AC readers! Though I’ve been playing a behind the scenes role all summer, its been a while since I (Kelsey) have posted.

In the time since my last post for the AC, spring and summer crumbled into fall, I moved (back) to Montreal, and I got hired for a limited term teaching appointment. So. I’m teaching full time again. Which is great! I’m thrilled to be back in a classroom. Even a virtual one. And also ….

I need advice. So, I thought I’d mix up format and address this advice to Kim. You’ll find my post first and Kim’s ever-helpful response below!

A picture of The Beatle’s singing “Help I need somebody” because it represents my emotional state: peppy but underpinned by something ominous (Kelsey)

Kim, I need help.

As we all know, COVID-19 has fundamentally and indeterminately altered the post-secondary teaching landscape. The scope of these changes vary by location. Some institutions remain predominantly in-person; others combine in-person and online activities; others are totally online. The mix is unprecedented. As is the volume of online courses. As is the experience of our students, who are suddenly navigating full-time online learning. As is our workload which now incorporates any possible combination of synchronous, asynchronous, side-ways synchronous teaching methods.

And I’m having a hard time locating pedagogical activism in the muddle.

The online learning technologies are all … fine. They work. (Except, you know, when they don’t). But they’re hard to pedagogically-activist-hack. Zoom, for example, can accommodate lots of users but it also curates and curtails polyvocality: the mechanics are explicitly designed to highlight the loudest speaker. And, the truth is, meetings breakdown if multiple people speak at the same time.

Also, I weighed my workload, and it came out to an actual tonne. I’m currently teaching three brand new (to me) undergraduate courses. I’m also still researching and publishing, doing community-based work, being a friend and family member, and generally living. This would be a lot in a regular year. I know that. But, the online piece is like the ghost from The Haunting of Bly Manor (which you should totally watch by the way): invisible, constantly hovering, threatening to pull me under at any moment

A computer screen filled with numbers and failure.

Then, there are my students: cameras-on (sigh of relief), cameras-off, sound accidentally on – partner/mother/roommate yelling about dinner in background.

They’re (mostly) really trying. And also, many of my students are obviously struggling. Which, of course, they are.

And, I keep walking out of live sessions, asking myself, “What are we doing here?”

I want to be clear: I’m not anti-online teaching. That would be like opposing the invention of the wheel. Like it or not, online teaching is going to be part of the post-secondary landscape moving forward. And it has plenty of advantages for both students and teachers.

But, I am struggling to locate the activism in this new environment.

And so I turn to you, Kim Solga, creator of the Activist Classroom: How are you doing it? Where is the activism in your classroom in fall 2020?

***

Dear Kelsey,

I find your thoughts above so… familiar. I’m with you. Not literally, but for sure:

we. are. in. this. all. together.

(Does it help to know that I’m drinking a martini on a Thursday evening while writing this? Well I am.)

Right now, for me, it’s all about surviving. The learning curve is so steep – and for some of us, out of university for 20 or so years or more, the memory of having to learn under the gun is so steep!!! – that the win feels like making it to Friday.

I’m very much unlike you right now in that I’m teaching only one course, and it’s a course I know well—even though it’s C-E-L (ha! Rhymes help with COVID – Trump assures us). But the reason I’m teaching only 0.5 is that I have a course release to support my research… which…

Is. Not. Happening.

But the “free time” I’ve lucked into means the class I’m teaching under these wacky new circumstances is manageable. And it means I’m actively learning from it. Over the last six weeks I’ve started to notice some silver linings, and your thoughts above have prompted me to think about these in the context of our space’s operative adjective, “activist”.

SO: here are thought on a few of my recent “activations”.

Our students see us. They usually see us as flawed human beings messing up the Zoom, and that is actually ace. The thing about all being in this together is that we really are; this is hard for them, it’s hard for us, and the more visible we make the labour, the easier it is to have a frank (and relieving, usually) conversation about what’s going on, and how much work it takes, and who is doing that work.

The class I’m teaching is about theatre beyond theatre: it features an introduction to performance studies, applied theatre, and performance activism for undergraduate students. This term we are partnered with the City of London (Ontario), the CityStudio initiative, and a course in Community Psychology, investigating ways to combat anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism in our city.

To say this is weird over Zoom is an understatement, but the big benefit of the Pandemic-as-usual is that we talk regularly about what happens which the poop hits the fan.

This was driven home for me last Tuesday, when our Zoom Room, joint with our fellow stakeholders AND hosting guests to speak to Black Lives Matter, went apocalyptically dumpster fire. My colleague in psychology and my TA desperately tried to save the day while I jumped into the fray to “teach” the class that… I hadn’t prepared because GUESTS were coming to speak. It was so tiring and, I thought, wretched—until one of my students came to office hours to tell me she thought it was a terrific class, and that I had done a very good job under really hard circumstances.

That made me recognize that, just as I see her struggling through the quagmire, she sees me too, and sees the work we are all doing. Best of all, that class turned out to be great after all because, in the wake of #techmeltdown, we managed to have a great conversation about who was included, and who excluded, as a result of the adjustments we’re all having to make because of COVID.

How often do we see one another’s work, call it out, recognize its contours for real? How often do we really recognize, really see, the work done by the invisible majority who keep our world running “smoothly”? That sounds like activism to me.

Grades don’t matter. Support matters. I’ve become a less and less stringent marker over the last 15 or so years of full time teaching. The reason is simple: I see the work students are putting in (see above!) and I want to reward it.

Why can’t you get 100% on an English Lit essay when you can on a Physics test, if you’re really good? Why indeed. I began just scaling up to compensate a while back, knowing my students were competing with kids judged under very different frameworks for university-wide prizes.

Recently I’ve begun crafting ways to give students real marks for genuine effort. In the class I’m teaching right now, for ages there has been an assignment that asks students to weigh in on a weekly “prompt” with a paragraph or so of thoughts, links, images, videos, etc, representing serious engagement with the problems at hand. Sometimes these prompts come from our weekly readings, and sometimes from a real-world application of those readings; after students do five of these (out of about 10 or so opportunities), they get an extra 10% “free” (it’s like getting 100% on an assignment worth 10% of their grade).

I’ve been worried about this in the past, because it “inflates” final course grades, but now I am not worried at all. Getting up, dressing self, feeding self, making it to the asynchronous lesson, doing the asynchronous lesson, and then responding to the prompt is real-ass work right now! I want my students to get these “free” marks for actual retail effort! I want them to know that the trying, if the response isn’t perfect or even all that correct, is still worth something proper. So much so, in fact, that I upped the “free” to 15%, plus bonus opportunities.

We are half way through the term right now, and my spreadsheet reveals that the majority of my students are on track to grab all 15% “free”. This means students who might otherwise read as “mediocre” because they’ve not yet learned the ins and outs of critical nuance, or aren’t that great with a semicolon, are going to end up looking pretty darn good at the end of this thing. It’s a leg up that might not otherwise have been supported to reach the next tier.

That also feels like activism to me.

Prep also doesn’t matter. If you have to pitch it, or wing it, just effing go for it. My biggest revelation so far thanks to #COVIDtimes and #Zoompocalypse has been this. If the poop does actually hit the thingy, who cares? We are screwing up like talented home handyfolx and that’s fine because there’s no playbook for this; we’re making it up.

I’ve had a few occasions where carefully crafted class exercises have gone super sideways thanks to tech screw-ups, and I just decided, let’s laugh about it. And you know what? The students laughed with me, not at me. (Learning how to laugh when shit goes wrong and then coping and carrying on with the work anyway seems to me a terrific lesson to take away from university and into life.)

I suspect there are a few of us right now who are working really hard to make the video lectures perfect, the tech in the synchronous lectures perfect, the impossible perfect. That’s a natural inclination for folks like us, who went to grad school because university looked like a “real world” we could super handle.

I once knew how to make a perfect video lecture but I’ve long forgotten, and my copy of the software I used to make it is majorly out of date. I decided in August I wasn’t up for re-learning.

Instead, I chose to put my usual “flipped classroom” prep (lots of 2-minutes free writes and “watch this video then think about it for 5 minutes” stuff) online as the asynchronous hour of our three hours together, and then to follow up only on that prep during our synchronous time together. So far, it’s worked. Students are engaged, whether in the live room or in the Zoom room (I’m teaching hybrid). This means prep takes me minimal time, and the two hours we have *actually* together each week can be spent talking about what we’ve all been previously exposed to and had time to think about. It’s not as much as I’d normally “teach”, but I think it’s more valuable, and as the term progresses I’m putting less and less into these lessons, knowing the students are feeling more and more overwhelmed.

We’re prioritizing talking about how we are doing, and what it means to be just “good enough” sometimes, rather than the perfect we’ve been taught to strive for. I suspect that, if I’d had the chance to have such a conversation in a class when I was an undergrad, I would have called that #activism of a kind, too.

COURAGE!

Kim

Interview: Charlotte Canning

At the beginning of 2020, I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Charlotte Canning, professor in the Performance as Public Practice stream and Head, Oscar G. Brockett Center for Theatre History and Criticism at the University of Texas Austin’s Department of Theatre & Dance. We had a lively, fascinating, conversation about pedagogy, teaching-teachers, and teaching as public practice. The first part of the chat is below, with the second part to follow next week!

Dr. Charlotte Canning

KB: Can you introduce yourself? What’s your current position, and what sort of teaching do you do?

CC: I am the Frank C. Erwin, Jr. Centennial Professor in Drama and have been on the faculty in the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of Texas at Austin since 1993.

One of the courses I teach is “Supervised Teaching.” This is a very bland title and an inaccurate description of the class. The class itself is really an introduction to teaching for graduate students. It’s required by the university. In our program, it is a very important part of our core curriculum because we invest very heavily in teaching as a mode of public engagement for scholars. We talk a lot about the scholar-artist-citizen-activist. Teaching is absolutely, in our opinion, central to that formulation.

It has really been an important course for the Performance as Public Practice students. Although, I should point out, it’s not just our students in the class. It’s for any graduate student in the department. That’s terrific, because it means we’ve got folks in the room who are coming from a range of disciplines. Unlike in, say, the history department, where everyone will teach history of some kind, when I taught it in fall 2019 I had playwrights, actors, dramaturgs, scholars and so on. So, you’re really having to think about pedagogy in certain kinds of holistic and heterogenous ways.

KB: Wow. I have attended several different graduate programmes and have never experienced that kind of a class. From the student’s perspective, what’s the feedback back been? What’s most useful? Least useful?

CC: I’m not sure what they think is the least useful. They’re too savvy to say that to me! But, from their comments, what I get is that one of the things they really value is the part of the class that they call the “micro-teach.” For the micro-teach, you submit a lesson plan for an entire day and then you teach ten minutes of that lesson plan to the class.

In Performance as Public Practice, this course rotates between three of us who teach it, depending on yearly schedules, etc. We share the same syllabus but each tweak it every time we get it. This year, I had the students work on creating a rubric for evaluating teaching. This was, in part, to demonstrate how, even though they’re useful, in a way, rubrics don’t really work. The exercise of creating it, using it, and then evaluating it was enormously helpful. It helped the students see that you do the best you can when you’re designing a rubric and then, in practice, you see what you should’ve valued and didn’t.

A randomly searched general essay marking rubric because … oh rubrics.

So, for the “micro-teach”, we had the rubrics that the students created plus colleague evaluations. I took notes as they taught. I evaluated the lesson plan and the self-evaluation they did. So, the feedback they got back was really comprehensive and, I think, really valuable.  They would love to do it twice but unfortunately there’s just not enough time in a semester to do the micro-teaches twice.

KB: What do you focus on in your feedback to these students?

CC: I try to do it in the context that we can all learn how to do this. Nobody was born knowing how to teach despite all the sentimental claptrap that’s out there. So, with each student, I push hard for them to think about how they can be an effective teacher. What, exactly, do they have? What do they bring to the table in the classroom that is very much theirs? Within each situation, I try to figure out how to support the direction in which they’re developing. I’m really lucky in that I’ve never taught the class where the students aren’t 100% committed. So, I’m never saying anything completely negative in my feedback. It’s more, “Take this and keep going” or “Don’t be afraid to do it, that was great.”

KB: What have you learned from teaching teachers?

CC: I don’t know what the teaching version of an editor is called, but in the same way that teaching writing makes you a better editor, I think teaching to teach — teaching teaching, you might call it — makes you a better teacher. That’s certainly been true for me. My syllabuses and assignments have gotten clearer and sharper. Teaching teaching makes me pause more often and be less sure  of myself – in the right way! Not a lack of confidence, but in the sense of being willing to stop and say, is that the right reaction? Is that what we should be doing? And, if the answer is no, it doesn’t undo me. I don’t feel like “oh my God, now I’ve done something terrible.” It’s like, “oh, okay, yeah, this needs to change.”

I have this story I tell. A few years ago, I was team-teaching a class with a colleague. It was online. We were doing a unit on acting. In the middle of it, we said, “Everybody stand up.” As we did that, I suddenly thought, “We have 700 students, we don’t know if all of them can stand up.” It gave me pause. We were ableists. But, it also made me ask: What do we mean when we ask the students to stand up? What do we mean theoretically? What do we mean in terms of what we expect to happen? I realized it was a physical coming to attention. It was about shifting the circumstances.

If I hadn’t made that mistake, I wouldn’t have truly thought through what I meant by “stand up” or confronted my ableist bias. That’s the kind of analytical skill that I’ve gained as a teacher by teaching teaching. I don’t know if I would’ve been able to think that through as well if I hadn’t had to be in front of students and talk about teaching all the time.

KB: I love that story. I feel like some of my best reflections have come from moments of breakdown. Those moments, while sometimes uncomfortable, have forced me to question myself: What was I trying to do there? What did I actually do? What’s the relationship between those two things. 

CC: Right! In this case: how do you shift the circumstances without depending on a single type of physical action? Is the physical action even the point?

KB: And, of course, it’s not.

CC: That was a great moment in terms of me thinking through what am I trying to do and why. That kind of reflection and evaluation is what I’ve got from teaching teaching.

***

Don’t forget to check back next week for the second half of the interview, in which Charlotte and I chat about public teaching, feminist pedagogy, and books!

New Year, Old Memories

Last November I traveled to Washington, D.C. for the annual conference of the American Society for Theatre Research; while there I had the chance to catch up with one of the first students I ever taught in a classroom of my own.

Dr Colleen Kim Daniher, Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at San Francisco State University, received her PhD from Northwestern University; before that, amongst many other things, she took  English 289E: Modern Drama (F/W 2005-06) with me at the University of Western Ontario, during my very first term on the tenure track.

Colleen Kim Daniher, in hands down the best prof headshot I’ve ever seen.

Colleen just completed her own first term on the tenure track, with a new baby to boot, and not long after we ate dinner together in D.C. she sent me a lovely, warm message telling me what my class had meant to her.

Any teacher knows what an honour it is to read such words; I was touched beyond measure. But I was also, slightly, amused – because that class was hands-down the hardest I’ve ever taught. It was trial by fire, mistake after mistake. To this day, Every Christmas I remember sitting in my bedroom in my rented flat in downtown London, Ontario on Boxing Day, holding the envelope full of anonymous midterm surveys I’d collected before the break, terrified (and I mean TERRIFIED: sweaty, heart racing, you name it) that they all read: YOU ARE A TERRIBLE TEACHER!!!

Not that kind. But you get it.

After reading Colleen’s note, and wiping the smile off my face, I had an idea. What if she and I did a reflection exercise about that class? Clearly it had an impact on her I didn’t readily recall, and clearly it took a toll on me she didn’t know about. Further, it’s obvious we both took major lessons from that year into our independent pedagogical futures. What were those lessons?

I decided to ask; Colleen was game. Herewith, the results.

1. What’s your strongest memory from English 289E: Modern Drama? What about this memory has stuck with you over all this time?

Colleen

My strongest memory from English 289E was the way it asked me and my fellow English literature classmates to harness performance practice as a mode of dramatic analysis. I remember being confused and yet very taken with the idea that performance could be a way of interrogating text, an idea implicit to the weekly small group scene studies that were assigned throughout the course. The basic premise was that each week, a group of about five or six students in our class of thirty would stage an excerpt from a text we were studying that week. This group was called “The Company.” The class met twice weekly (for one whole calendar year!), so we would have a more conventional professor-run lecture on Tuesdays, and then on Thursdays, we, the students, would essentially lead the day’s conversation. First, “The Company” would perform their interpretation of their chosen scene for the entire class, then another small group of students (called “The Colleague-Critics”) would have to respond, leading the rest of the class in a discussion of the staging just witnessed. The groups were randomly assigned and fixed through the run of the semester, so you would get to know your group-mates quite well and rotate several times as a unit through both Company and Colleague-Critic roles.

It was unlike any class activity I had ever been a part of. I remember prior to my first small group performance (a staging of Ubu Roi) reading and re-reading the syllabus instructions, trying to “figure out” what the assignment was actually about. In hindsight, the hardest part of the assignment was shedding my presuppositions around performance as a (finished, polished) product. I can’t speak for the other students in the class, but the invitation to perform in a drama class was one that I was personally hungering for: I was a theatre nerd in a university without a formal theatre department. I got my kicks in the music department as a Voice major and in the student-run, on-campus theatre organization [Theatre Western]. However, what we were being asked to do with performance in the class was completely different than what I was used to as a fairly experienced musician and actor. We had very little rehearsal time, scripts-in-hand, and the barest of production values. The point, I would learn, was not to “put on a performance” but to think through performance in the act of its doing. It was a bit opaque at the time, but utterly intoxicating. In fact, this first taste of the conjoining of performance as a critical-intellectual endeavor and performance as an embodied practice is what I live for today as a Performance Studies scholar!

Also: Brecht! So much Brecht. Everything I now know about Brecht I learned in this class.

The muppets: seriously epic.

Kim

The methodology Colleen describes above was a hybrid of stuff I learned from one of my undergraduate mentors, Nora Foster Stovel, at the University of Alberta (where I completed my BA), and from my postdoctoral mentor, Jill Dolan, at UT Austin. Looking back through Colleen’s description I realize that what I was asking the students to do was basic practice-as-research (PBR), but at the time, believe it or not, I didn’t have that language to share! (I was trained in Shakespeare, kids.) I didn’t actually realize until now that it was as opaque as it seemed to Colleen and her peers; that said, my experiences of performances up to this point in my career had been less polish, more muck. No wonder we struggled!

My strongest memory of the class, meanwhile, is that moment on my bedroom floor I describe above, and the problems that led to it. While Colleen recalls perfectly the shape of the class’s learning week as it finally settled, we began in a much less tidy place. In the first term, I held a two-hour lecture in our Tuesday block, and the student performances happened on a Thursday. Quickly I realized that the students were struggling to figure out what kinds of questions to ask about their peers’ performances, how to extend the knowledge those performances were making. We had trouble filling the hour and I was devastated; they were looking at me for direction and I felt like I was failing. This problem consumed my first term at Western and produced more than a few nights in tears.

Eventually, after reading the mid-term anonymous feedback (SPOILER ALERT: not a terrible teacher!), I decided on a change: we’d swap the second hour of Tuesday for the performances, then come back Thursday and extend our learning by bringing the performance and our readings for the week into fulsome conversation. This took the pressure off the students to figure out all the performance things, and it helped me to model what performance research really looks like in practice.

It was the best teaching decision I ever made. It reminded me 1) not to be afraid to admit difficulties and make changes; and 2) to trust the students to show me the way.

2. What aspects of the class have you found yourself thinking about as you’ve developed a research and teaching career? IE: was something “inspiring” and in what way? (NB: I know this may be another way of saying question 1.)
 
Colleen

I continue to teach and preach performance practice as a serious mode of intellectual engagement. As an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at San Francisco State University, I teach courses that follow a very similar two-part model of instruction as English 289E: lecture/discussion one day a week, and an applied performance lab on the second day. In my classes (“Performance and Identity” and “Performance Art”) my students respond to the course material through discussion, writing, and the actual doing of performance.

Integrating performance practice in the classroom is sometimes the hardest thing, especially as a recently arrived teacher at a new institution (the logistics of finding space! of scheduling performance assignments!). But my training, first, as an undergraduate student in Modern Drama, then as a graduate student in Northwestern’s Performance Studies department, instilled in me a strong sense of the value of integrating performance practice and theory. For me, it’s a matter of the politics of knowledge transmission: I want my students to see and to understand that performance is a legitimate site of knowledge inquiry and production, not (only) a specialized domain of artistic activity. It’s an expressive tool and an analytic lens that can help us understand the world around us. And looking back, I can see that Modern Drama gave me my first taste of that specific orientation towards performance.

Dear Kim,

Here it is! My responses are probably too long, but it turns out I had a lot to say. Also, so much fun remembering : )

My takeaway: it was more fun being a student than a teacher ; )

-C

Kim

Modern Drama in that first year on the tenure track was, for me, my first inkling that thinking seriously about the practice of teaching was going to become a central part of my academic career. Unlike Colleen at the time, I already had a sense of the importance of practice-based research creation (thank you, UofT and UT!), but what I didn’t have was the confidence of an experienced teacher.

The hardest thing about that year was realizing that I was going to mess up, A LOT, and that I needed to figure out what to do about it. After the winter break, when I explained to the students how things were going to shift in our schedule and why this shift was a good idea, I took the time to tell them (in aggregate, of course) about the things they had told me on their anonymous midterm surveys, and how their sharing had led me directly to tweaks I thought would benefit us all. Basically, I told them outright what I’d assumed they’d understood all along: that we were collaborators, a team, and their input was as crucial as mine to our shared learning success.

The hardest thing about that year was realizing that I was going to mess up, A LOT, and that I needed to figure out what to do about it.
-K

Since then, I work in every new classroom to name collaboration as the core of my teaching practice: I introduce myself as a team member as well as a guide, I work on building classroom community in the early weeks of term, and I explain my process meta-cognitively as much as possible, also building in meta-cognitive reflection practices for students along the way. In my Theatre Studies classes, I don’t always now use the lab model Modern Drama followed, but we always do active learning labour and then think about the “how” and the “why” of our shared practice.

3. What’s your memory of Kim as a teacher? (Here, please be honest. I love when everyone says how amazing I am *coughs bashfully*, but that term was SO HARD for me. I’d appreciate honest recollections from the other side of the desk!)

Colleen

Kim was easily one of the best undergraduate professors I had ever had. It was just so obvious how much she cared and how hard she was working for us as students. This is something I try to remind myself of when I’m feeling down about my own teaching: how letting your students see you working hard for them can be just as effective as the mythic “perfectly-planned” course.

I remember the epic-long, publication-worthy performance responses she would give to The Company group members after our in-class performances; the incredibly detailed syllabus; her impassioned lectures on alienation effect and Elin Diamond’s “the true-real”; the thoughtfulness with which she worked with her graduate student TA. One thing that especially stands out to me is the informal course evaluation she offered to us at midterm; I can’t remember all the details now, but I think we answered three prompts: “what’s working, what’s not, and what would you change.” We came back from winter break, and then she actually went over our anonymized feedback with us, outlining how she would implement our feedback. And I remember the course (especially the scene study Thursdays) changing for the better from that point on.

This is something I try to remind myself of when I’m feeling down about my own teaching: how letting your students see you working hard for them can be just as effective as the mythic “perfectly-planned” course.
-C

Even then, I was so impressed that she cared to know what we thought before the course was over. Today, the informal midterm course evaluation is a key tool in my own pedagogical tool-kit! There are some semesters where I almost talk myself out of giving it, and then I think back to how seen and heard I felt in Kim’s class, and I am never disappointed with the results.

Kim

Oh my god the floundering! To this day I think of the crappiness of some of those classes, the epic time over-running, how I knew students must be so frustrated with how much I was very clearly overdoing it (#newteacher). Reading Colleen’s thoughts now – and about her memory of the midterm survey! Holy gosh! – honestly reminds me how valuable those early, overly earnest pedagogical tools were.

Many of them have morphed now, or fallen away from me; I rarely teach full-year classes anymore, so often talk myself out of surveying the students in mid-October or mid-February. Hearing Colleen’s take-away here – students need to feel seen and heard; they need to know they know things! That we are all learning together! – is a boost in the arm better than any flu jab. It’s a new lease on my own teaching.

Thanks, Colleen. Maybe from now on we can mentor each other.
-K

End of Term Evaluations & Student Feedback – Part I

This is the first part of a two-part post. As an end of term treat, next week will feature a roundtable post with more evaluation hacks from instructors across the teaching spectrum!

Alongside stacks of unmarked essays and the promise of candy cane flavoured lattes, the final weeks of November mean the end of classes. And, the end of classes mean it’s every instructor’s favourite time of year: it’s course evaluation time.

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As anyone in higher education knows, teaching evaluations have conventionally played a significant role in hiring, promotion, and tenure processes. Theoretically, they provide students the opportunity to report on their experiences with an instructor, giving institutions key information about what happens in courses across university campuses.

Practically, they are far murkier.

There is plenty of evidence (see: here, here, and here) that suggests that teaching evaluations are frequently inflected by biases and gender biases in particular. To boot, they are designed like standardized tests (often complete with institutional grey and blue colour schemes). And, frankly, the questions are usually, ahem, unhelpful in terms of actual pedagogical feedback.

evals_0

I find all of this annoying.

I’m currently a postdoctoral researcher and contract instructor, so whether I like it or not, evaluations matter for my career. At the same time, I’m at a point in my teaching where I genuinely want feedback. And, I really want feedback about things that course evaluations aren’t designed to gather, like assignment creation and the success or failure of specific activities.

So, last year, I decided to solicit end of term feedback from students in addition to their course evaluations. This isn’t super radical. I, and many other teachers, do mid-term check-ins. Nevertheless, I thought I’d share the process and list of questions as a resource.

These questions were for a small, seminar-based performance studies class. The class was comprised of upper year students and took place once a week for three hours.


  1. What reading did you enjoy the most/get the most out of this semester? Why?
  2. What reading from BEFORE reading break (so, Kelsey selected) did you enjoy the least/get the least out of this semester. Why?
  3. What worked for you about the co-facilitation project?
  4. Was the co-facilitation assignment a better or worse experience for you than a traditional individual or group presentation? Why?
  5. Was there an element of the co-facilitation project that hindered your leaning?
  6. Did the reading responses support your learning? Why or why not?
  7. Was there an in-class activity that you vividly remember? Which one? Why?
  8. Is there anything else you’d like to share with me?

On the final day of class, I paired my usual speech about course evaluations (they matter) with my introduction to this set of questions.

Wanting to give my students the same freedom to respond to these questions as their course evaluations, I also arranged for one of my students to collect the informal evaluations, put them in a sealed envelope, and to hand them off to a colleague to keep until after grades were submitted.

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When semester was over, I collected the envelope and was both pleased and surprised with the depth of feedback I received: the co-facilitation project was generally helpful for learning but also a bit complex on the ground; there was one too many historiography readings, and students took away unexpected nuggets from the class.

Most importantly, unlike my teaching evaluations, which are generally written about me, the feedback was written to me. This meant that it was phrased so that I could read it constructively, and in combination with my evaluations, the students’ insights offered a really helpful perspective for moving forward in my teaching practice.

 

 

Reflecting on Teaching & Elections

The Canadian federal election took place on Monday October 21st. This post is an offering in the form of a reflection.

Tune in next time for Part II from Joanne Tompkins!

I wake up groggily.

My body urges me to hang onto sleep. But, my mind has other plans: I need to check my phone. I flop my arm out toward my nightstand, instinctively thumb my way to the interwebs, and pry my eyes open so that I can read the news. Nothing has changed in the time since I fell asleep: the Liberal Party of Canada won the most seats in the 2019 federal election and will seek to form a minority government.

Elections Canada

I spend the next forty-five minutes in a daze, scrolling through news and my social media feed. There is no lack of potentially unsettling items – election commentary, the popularity of the hashtag #weexit, signalling a surge of interest in Alberta’s separatist movement – but mostly I feel relieved that I didn’t wake up in an alternate reality where the balance of governmental power swung to the far right. It’s a low bar, but in the context of western politics this year, it nevertheless earns a sigh of relief from me.

Despite my relief, I’m grateful I’m not in a classroom today, an indirect result of teaching during the 2016 American election.

As you may remember, in the fall of 2016, Donald Trump ran against Hilary Clinton in the American federal election.

That same fall, I taught my first university course as an instructor. I was teaching an upper level theatre and performance theory class.

I’m largely proud of the pedagogical work I did in that class. Behind the scenes, however, it was what I would politely refer to as a shitshow. I was figuring out the online learning system and the specific potentials and constraints of the classroom space; I was doing huge amounts of prep work; I was playing with my style as an instructor; I was writing my dissertation prospectus; I was completing articles, and I was doing all of this while caring  for my mother who was undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer (I should say here: while she still has the routine tests, she’s currently healthy and there have been no signs of cancer since she finished treatment in 2017). It was, in short, not the easiest autumn for me.

Then, about three weeks into semester, I realized something: I’d scheduled my feminist theory class for the day after the American election.

Oh boy.

I’m not saying I wouldn’t do that on purpose, but it mattered that I hadn’t. And, it mattered, in particular, that semester. As November approached and the campaign filled the ether, I kept looking at my syllabus. There was no way that topic on that day was not going to be a thing.

Feminism & Theatre

Six weeks later, I was proven right.

Generally speaking, I’m a pretty emotionally even-keeled human. But, the results of the American election – wherein Donald Trump, after a vitriolic, racist, misogynistic, ableist, xenophobic, islamaphobic (to name a few of the plethora of “ists” that might be included here) campaign, became president of the United States of America – intersected with the challenges of my personal life and shook me. I cried most of the 45-minute drive to campus.

And, then, as teachers do, I pulled myself together, walked into class, and looked completely normal.

Things were not normal, however.

Even though I was teaching in Canada, I could see that the election results had significantly affected many of the students. They looked tired; their shoulders were slumped; their expressions were solemn, sad even. And yet, there they were, in their theatre and theory class at 10 in the morning, looking at me.

I could feel the teaching moment open-up in front of me: the next 80 minutes could be a lesson that bridged the classroom with the world, that created space for the plethora of student experiences (including those that were ambivalent or happy about the election results), and that prompted genuine dialogue.

Opening

And, just as quickly, I knew that I couldn’t capitalize on that opening. I was too new as an instructor and too personally exhausted.  I performed my lesson plan, and it went fine. But, it wasn’t transformational. It wasn’t even particularly good. It was just a lesson.

I know that many postsecondary teachers see elections as opportunities to generate dialogue or to meaningfully connect the classroom to the world at large. I respect that a great deal.

As an early carer instructor, however, elections have often felt like elastic bands around my teaching practice. The opportunity of the added tension is palpable but so are its constraints:

How do I capitalize on the increased political awareness that tends to accompany elections?

How do I encourage inclusive, respectful, dialogue?

How and to what degree do I perform my own political values?

How do I balance all of these questions in relation to my role as a contract instructor, in a workplace where many of my colleagues have positions that grant them more job stability, and by consequence, more room for error and conflict?

I don’t have the answers to these questions but I offer them, and my election reflections, as a gesture to the other teachers who don’t either.

Sometimes, we don’t, or can’t, capitalize on teaching moments. And, that’s okay. Others will come along.

In my case, I hear another federal election cycle is on the horizon in the United States. As you can imagine, I can hardly wait.