Active learning in the graduate seminar room

This past autumn I taught my first graduate seminar in almost eight years; as a result of sabbaticals, career moves, and then my labour establishing a new undergraduate theatre studies program at Western, I had had neither the time nor the opportunity to teach graduate students (Brits: that’s postgrads to you) since summer 2009. I was excited to get back into the seminar room with smart MA and PhD candidates, but I was also a bit daunted.

I find graduate teaching a mixed blessing. On one hand: smart students, well read, self-selecting into a challenging program. We can expect them to be prepared; we can expect them to be keen; we can expect them to participate. On the other, though, there’s the whiff of imposter syndrome all around us in grad seminars: every student is eyeing every other student, wondering if they know enough, if they are smart enough. Showing off can ensue; oneupmanship happens whether students intend it to or not. Fraught dynamics emerge; and there I am, the prof who ALSO fears she doesn’t actually know enough to be teaching graduate students, caught in the middle, trying to keep the discussion on track.

(Imposter syndrome never goes away; you just learn to cope better with it. Sorry.)

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With years between me and my last graduate outing, I had some questions for my peers as I prepared the syllabus: how much reading is too much? Not enough? Are we still assigning One Seminar Presentation and One Final Essay, or have assessments evolved? In general the consensus was: 100 pages per week, give or take; seminar presentations always; one or two essays as you prefer.

The goal, as ever, was to make discussions in the room rich, but prep not too onerous. Grad seminars, the logic goes, should involve the prof and the class preparing the reading, and then coming to the room with questions and ideas to propel a discussion. Profs aren’t prepping lectures (or, most aren’t), and the onus is on the group to find useful things to say about each set of readings each week.

Pure, unadulterated active learning.

Except, well… maybe not. As I planned my new course (“Performance and the Global City”; please email me if you’d like a copy of the syllabus!) I spent a lot of time thinking back to my earlier graduate seminar experiences, both as a teacher and as a student. I realized that the traditional seminar model creates some barriers to access that reveal its limits as an active learning environment.

First of all, good discussions require a fair bit of curation; it’s not enough to come to class with a handful of talking points and/or questions for the room and assume everyone will be able to jump in and dig deep, just like that. (Quiet students will always struggle with the “so, what did we think?” opener, and, no, it’s not them, it’s us.)

Second, certain voices dominate class discussions because they have been trained by existing learning protocols to do so; those voices are comfortable with minimal prompting, and they aren’t always aware of how much space they are taking up. For profs keen to get a rousing discussion going around the seminar table, those voices are a godsend; we may complain to each other in the halls or over drinks about the students who dominate our discussions, but without the keeners who can kill airtime, our under-curated discussions can stall and leave us exposed.

Finally, can I just say that the traditional graduate seminar presentation is more often than not boring as heck? Does anyone actually enjoy listening to anyone else read a paper for 20 minutes at a go? What – other than how to write a clever paper and deliver a very dull conference presentation – do we imagine we are teaching our postgrads with this kind of assessment?

OK, so I know I’m being hard on tried and true models here, and if your graduate seminars run conventionally but very well then I’m really glad, and I would not want to stop you from carrying on with them. But the more I thought about the grad seminar status quo, the more I knew I didn’t want to do it again. So I hatched a new plan.

I decided to import a bunch of flipped-classroom active learning techniques from my undergraduate classes into my new graduate seminar.

This shift manifested in two key ways. First, student presentations were styled as peer teaching presentations, not research presentations. Every student was required to teach one article over the course of the term to the rest of the class, and students were required to work in pairs for this task. Further, I explicitly asked them not to create a lecture, but instead to frame the teach with an active learning exercise.

Here’s the brief for the peer teach I included in the syllabus:

PEER TEACHING EXERCISE

Once this term you will work in pairs to lead the class in an exploratory exercise based on one of our readings. The goal: to help you to try out different ways to connect students with challenging material. For that reason, I ask you not to prepare a lecture-style statement for this task; you should of course have thoughts about your reading you would like to draw out, but the point of this exercise is not to tell us what they are.

Here’s how the task will work:

  • By Wednesday at NOON of your week to teach, you will post to OWL a provocation (maybe a question, maybe not…) based on ONE of the readings for that week. Let Kim know in advance which reading you will focus on.
  • Your classmates will offer preliminary reflections on your provocation on OWL over the following 24 hours. You should read and note these reflections.

You will then prepare a learning exercise to help us explore your provocation.

There are lots of exercises to choose from; you might want to consult some research on “active learning” or the “flipped classroom” to help you out – the Teaching and Learning Centre at Weldon can help with this, or (of course!) you can have a chat with Kim to discuss some options. Your exercise need not be complicated, but it should be more than you simply asking everyone, “so, what did you think?”

When you come to class on Thursday, you will run your exercise, and then debrief it. Here, you can incorporate your classmates’ preliminary responses as much or as little as you feel will be productive.

You will have a total of 30 minutes for your teach. (NOTE: this is actually not a lot of time! Use it with care.)

Clear as mud? Don’t worry! Kim will model this task in our second week. If you’re still stuck, though, ask yourself this question: did a teacher ever do a really useful, cool thing in class that really stuck with you? What was that cool thing?

Second, not only did I model a variety of peer teaching exercises for the students in the second class of the term, in order to give them a concrete sense of how their own teaching sessions could work, but I continued to incorporate group-based and pairs-based learning exercises in my own teaching week to week in order to make those things normative in our seminar room.

We’d do think/pair/share work, we’d use “world cafe” or long table-style discussions, and one week we even debriefed our field trip to Detroit by creating team maps of the experience on flip chart paper, trying to draw connections between our on-the-ground experiences and the ideas conveyed by our readings about the city.

(Candid snaps of the students at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit – Sebastian, Lacey, Sharon, Emily and Robyn)

The students came along, gamely, for the ride – although they were understandably hesitant at first. I made a point of leaving my office door wide open to them as they prepared for their teaches, and after each teach I’d invite the presenters to come for a debrief, where we’d talk about what went well and what didn’t, and where they could be free to ask me all kinds of questions about active learning models.

Students consistently reported to me that they enjoyed the teaching exercise, found it unusual but productive; nevertheless, I couldn’t shake the feeling they were just humouring me. After all, grad seminars are supposed to be complex, serious learning environments… and we were mostly just having a good time. My imposter syndrome gurgled away in the pit of my stomach. Could they really be taking this seriously, getting as much out of it as they were getting out of the modernist theory and poetry seminar up the hall?

When my seminar evaluations landed in my email inbox last week, that gurgle erupted once more. Here was the moment of truth: What They Really Thought about our flipped seminar, all those small group discussions and messing about with coloured markers.

To my genuine surprise and utter delight, the evaluations universally praised the experience. I was astonished; students called our class a “refreshing and dynamic break” from the traditional model, a “comfortable and open learning environment” where everyone “could express their opinions and ideas without fear of judgement.” This one below is my favourite, because it tells me I achieved everything I had wanted to do, and also more than I’d hoped:

Through her use of active learning in her teaching practice, Kim fostered a deeply collaborative class environment. It was an environment where it felt safe to fail, which made it all the more generative – we were able to take risks, offer partial thoughts, and hash them out together.

I really appreciated that she encouraged using creative practices in our assignments, especially given the course material. Being able to engage in the practices that we were locating in our readings and field trips was a really valuable research method for me – that Kim gave us the latitude to work outside the boundaries of more traditional methods really enhanced my experience in this course.

Last Friday I had lunch with one of the students from the class, Emily Hoven. I told Emily about the evaluations and my surprise at their unwavering support for the flipped seminar model; I then asked her if she could talk to me a bit about what in particular she had found productive (or even not productive) about the model.

Her reply confirmed my own suspicions and chimed with the data on the evaluations.

She noted, first, that there’s a spirit of competition in graduate seminars that is not always helpful; everyone’s trying to say the next smart thing. That can make for brilliant, lively discussions, but can also make for intimidation and fear. In our class, she pointed out, we all worked together in a more equitable way; as a result, feelings of competitive angst lessened considerably.

Next, she pointed out that, as an undergraduate, she’d had a lot of experience with flipped classrooms, and thus our classroom felt both familiar and safe. Never mind that the model was unlike other grad seminars; it was like enough to active learning that many students are now experiencing at university that it provided a sense of grounding for students who might otherwise be struggling. She noted that likely this was not true for all the students in the class, but my guess is it’s also more true for many than we might think. As active learning becomes more common at the undergraduate level, we should consider its value as continuity at the graduate level, especially for Master’s students who are undergoing a sea change in their learning experiences and expectations as they enter grad school for the first time.

Finally, Emily’s comments, along with those on the evaluations, reminded me of what I found to be the most positive peer-teach outcome of all: it required everyone to renegotiate the vocal dynamic in our seminar space. Remember above, when I noted that certain voices tend to dominate seminars because they’ve been trained to do so by extant pedagogical models? In our classroom, new models driven by different learning dynamics meant quieter voices were invited actively into the learning space; shifting the room’s architecture (figuratively, but frequently literally, too, as we moved furniture to facilitate different kinds of group work) changed the default “permissions” of our seminar space, to productive effect.

In one of my favourite peer teaches of the term, this shift became glowingly evident as the most vocal person in the room and one of the quietest worked together; the former student actively placed herself in the peer teach’s supporting role in order to make space for her peer to take centre stage.

It was remarkable evidence of the power of genuine “active learning” in the graduate classroom to help everyone feel a little less like an imposter, and a little more like an empowered knowledge-maker.

Feeling grateful,

Kim

Present or else!

It’s spring break – that is, for everyone who attends or teaches in a grammar school in Ontario. This year I decided, along with several of my cycling friends who are grammar school teachers, that I needed a break break (I spent our Reading Week mostly working and fretting; it was not a break), so I decided to give my students a mid-March channel change. This week, they are working independently while I ride up a bunch of mountains in Table Rock, South Carolina. I’m on my bike 3-4 hours a day and otherwise sitting quietly, catching up on reading, eating (mostly) healthy and abundant food, drinking no alcohol whatsoever, and having a deep think.

One of the things I’m thinking about is the relationship between the assignments on my courses and student learning outcomes. How am I getting students where they need to be, on one hand, and where I want them to go, on the other? I’ve been considering lately how we might talk in new ways – to students, parents, administrators, and each other – about what social goods adhere to arts and humanities learning, and how those goods can be brought to bear on our “creative”, “information”, and “post-truth” economies (choose your adjective – I think they all mean similar things right now, alas). In particular, I’m wondering how we can start that process of revaluation inside the neoliberal university, encouraging administrators at the highest levels to recognise arts and humanities teaching as something to be better appreciated – both affectively, and fiscally – across faculty lines.

So, assignments. It matters what we ask students to do for marks, and not least because that impacts directly who can, or will, take our classes – students might want desperately to learn more about theatre, for example, but might not want to write a bunch of essays because a) they suck at them, b) essays aren’t valued in their home discipline, and/or c) they can’t afford to get a bunch of less than good grades on essays at which they believe they suck. (I recognise the inherent problem with fear of failure here, AND the problem with fear of learning new and hard things – but that’s another post.)

As I’ve been building my new Theatre Studies courses at Western (so far: intro to performance studies [“Performance Beyond Theatres”]; history of performance theory; a study abroad number called “Destination Theatre”), I’ve paid particular attention to alternative assignment submission structures. For example, this term students in both of my courses have the option of creating a traditional essay, a creative essay, OR an audio-video piece for their final projects. Research requirements are the same across all three, but the format options are designed to play to students’ individual strengths and interests.

One thing I’ve not managed to hack yet, though, is in-class presentations.

When I teach dramatic literature classes, I put students in groups and assign plays for scene study; sometimes we do these weekly, and sometimes we run scheduled scene study workshop days and show our labour all together. I’ve done both, each time incorporating Q&A sessions with each group, and they both work really well. The students learn deeply about the plays they are assigned, and they have the creative freedom (built into the assignment) to play around with the text, including the freedom to do a re-write or a physical theatre re-imagining of the work. Over the last decade, consistently students have returned again and again to their scene study texts over a semester or a year, doing superb things with them on essays, final exams, etc. The scene study assignments are both fun and win-win, where deep learning is concerned.

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OK, so this ain’t a scene study action shot. But it IS of my students – in last semester’s intro to performance studies – and they ARE making theatre (image theatre, to be precise). Plus, I just really love this photo. The students in the foreground are Olivia Helewa and Muhammed Sameer.

When I teach theory classes, however, I take a different approach. We’re learning a lot of challenging material, and all of it requires a knowledge of context. I scaffold assignments to help students figure out how to make sense of a piece of tough theory; I also invite research into social history and political context.

Right now, for example, my history of performance theory group are doing three short reflection papers. One asks them simply to “explain” the key ideas in a work – that’s it. The second asks them to “apply” the theory to something they’ve recently seen, live or on-screen. The third asks them to “expand” a theorist’s ideas by challenging, or pushing further, one of the more controversial aspects of the theory. They are also each required to do one in-class presentation on one theorist, offering social and political background to help us ground the theorist and their writing in space and time.

In the main, the presentations this year have been fine but not stand-out. The problem, of course, is that students find presentations stressful – and then they speak too quickly, or try to cram in too much information, and so on. They are worried they’ll miss some key point to do with the history; they are worried they won’t get through everything in 10 minutes; they are new to the material and thus unsure about everything they are saying. They are mighty nervous, full stop.

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Yup: sorta like that nervous.

I assign presentations of this sort in part to test this kind of stress; after all, many jobs require human beings to present material they have studied and/or know about in front of other human beings who do not know about it (yet). So learning to present comfortably and successfully in front of a group is a very, very transferable skill – and performance classes should teach it.

And yet. I’ve started really to question my use of the bog-standard context presentation this year. How much value is it adding to student experience in the class overall, and to the arsenal of students’ knowledge about themselves (or even about performance theory!) in particular? This isn’t a public speaking class; I don’t have the time in thirteen short weeks to cover the last 2000 years of thinking about drama and live performance, and to help students become stronger public speakers.

At least, not in this format I don’t.

Which is why, as I’ve been sitting here and gazing out at the Appalachians, I’ve been wondering about presentation alternatives.

The stress that builds up around scene study work is different from the typical public speaking stress I see in one-on-class presentations: it’s creative stress, it’s about anticipation rather than fear or dread, and it tends to be shared among group members in ways that usually work to alleviate rather than ramp up panic. The more I think about it, the more I think it’s ultimately more productive stress than the other kind: it encourages students to work in teams to support each others’ emotional and creative needs, and it requires both resourcefulness and flexibility, rather than just Wikipedia-trolling skills. These are, as my colleague and friend Barry Freeman argued in a recent reflection on the future of theatre studies teaching and learning (in the “Views and Reviews” section of CTR 161), exactly the kinds of skills we as theatre instructors need to provide for a range of learners – they are even more transferable, arguably, to both work and life, than the basic skill of “public speaking”.

I’m now trying to imagine how to incorporate more of my dram lit scene study model into my theory classes. I’m envisioning a “workshop” format for next year’s history of performance theory, in which every couple of weeks groups of students present a scene from a play or another piece of creative work designed to model two or three key ideas from the theorists we are studying. Or maybe I’ll trial a capstone format, where in the last week of class groups of students present creative material they’ve developed in response to one theorist’s work – a scene study, a manifesto, or a theorist “update” for the twenty-first century.

As usual, I’ll be polling this year’s class for their input at the end of the semester. Meanwhile, though, if you teach theory classes, and have creative ideas for in-class presentations, please leave a comment and tell me about it!

Kim

Theatre for Change: An experiment in Disobedience [Guest post]

Blog friends: at the end of June I spent a week in residence at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London, where I am a Senior Visiting Fellow. I had the chance to run two seminars for graduate students and faculty, one of which focused on teaching, activism, and writing about teaching. I invited participants to become guest posters here on the blog, and today I am thrilled to share reflections on her practice by Nicola Abraham, who teaches in the DATE (Drama in Applied Theatre and Education) stream at Central. Enjoy!

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Theatre for Change: An experiment in Disobedience 

By Dr Nicola Abraham

Introduction

For the past two years I have run a unit called “Theatre for Change” on a drama degree programme in London, England. Theatre for Change examines performances and protest approaches that intend(ed) to provoke audiences into making social change, i.e. by advocating for a change in the law, for equal rights, or further protesting for or against a particular political ideal. Theatre for Change also encapsulates drama based workshops that may be conducted several times a week over a longer period of time within a community setting. Often these community settings are formed of hard-to-reach groups within society, for example, refugees, elders, at-risk youth and caregivers. The intention behind working with marginalised groups is to enable the often suppressed voices of that community to be heard publically.

The Theatre for Change unit is based on my practice and research, and it provides an opportunity for me to introduce students to similar work in this area of Applied Theatre. (Applied Theatre is an umbrella term for theatre that takes place with, for, or by communities.) Part of the challenge I set myself for this unit is to ensure that sessions perform the core pedagogical values of Applied Theatre practice. I would describe these values as follows:

  • Valuing equality of voice
  • Ensuring inclusion of diverse voices in discussion
  • Playing with ideas through practice

Context

We are fortunate to have a growing diversity within our cohort of students. This provides a rich set of voices from different socio-economic and political backgrounds, though predominantly students are left-wing liberal in their thinking. Whilst this diversity offers a wonderful opportunity for students to encounter and embrace different ideas, it does create challenges, especially during whole-class discussions.

Students have a tendency to search for consensus as a means of validating their perspective. For example, one of the students in a recent class raised the point that Theatre for Change leads definitively to social change, that once an audience see a provocative performance, they leave the theatre thinking differently to when they arrived. The unit challenges this point, asking the students to think critically about the possible barriers to change transitioning beyond an audience’s experiences of a performance into their attitudes and actions in their daily lives. Instead of engaging in a debate to examine this potential problem, students responded generally, noting their agreement with their peer. This kind of reaction could be read as a supportive approach towards the dominant views held by the cohort.

Part of this tension may be related to attempts to provide the ‘correct’ answer so that the discussion might move on, which students seemed to think involved a change of topics as opposed to the exploration of more challenging facets within the idea already on the table. For instance, when discussing the ethics of using Forum Theatre to find ways of tackling domestic violence, I raised a question about the ethics of using this approach to tackle such a complex topic. (Forum Theatre, an interactive, problem-solving method derived from Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, seeks solutions to problems depicted on stage from amongst audience members, who actively intervene in the action.) But as soon as I mentioned ‘ethics’, students gave responses mirroring the language I had used to form the question I initially posed to them, rather than taking up the baton of debate the question sought to pose. Here are a sample of replies:

‘I think that, ethically, Forum Theatre shouldn’t explore domestic violence’.

‘For me, it’s really unsafe and unethical to suggest Forum Theatre can work for women in violent relationships’.

One student, however, gave an example of a piece of Forum Theatre she had read about which challenged domestic violence. In this instance, a women in the audience had implemented a solution on stage to change the power dynamic in her relationship with her abusive husband, but had ended up in hospital as a result. Following this incident, her husband was arrested. The student argued this was a successful outcome, representing one possible way out of a violent relationship. A majority of the class disagreed with this suggestion, but the student who had suggested the idea stood her ground. The moment produced an interesting dilemma for the group to consider.

Learning Styles

I should mention that most of my students on “Theatre for Change” are kinaesthetic learners who find understanding new theoretical ideas, through didactic lecturing, challenging. They tend to thrive when they can draw from their own experiences to pin down a new concept. However, this can lead to further tensions, which arise when students appear to give more weight to shared experiences that build consensus, rather than exceptional experiences that break the ‘rules’ of their consensus-seeking approach to discussion. Honouring diverse views is a priority for my classroom, and working through tensions to seek a place of dissensus is important. It is not only necessary for the group to learn the skills to engage in a complex debate, but also to learn a core facilitation skill to help them navigate similar situations in community settings later on.

I would like to share with you an approach I used to enable the group to unpack a complex set of ideas and approach dissensus. I provided them with a ‘shared’ experience of an experiment looking at the concept of disobedience as a tool for civil activism. This formed part of a session entitled ‘Neoliberalism, Austerity and Art for Disobedience’. Before we began the experiment, students had offered their understandings of the potential of Theatre for Change, noting that they generally felt that incremental changes lead to fundamental social change. This session was designed to provide a ‘felt’ response to the barriers that hegemony places in front of a radical practice aiming for fundamental change.

It was also a trick…

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The Experiment: How do we play it right?

The session involved working in teams (chosen by students) to play a game. Each team was given a brown envelope containing instructions for their first task, a pen, note paper, and contact phone numbers for the ‘game master’ (me). The groups were given 40 minutes to complete the game and told that they must provide evidence of the completion of each task in any way they wished. There were no other rules apart from one: The aim of the game was to be disobedient, and the best team would win. Time began at 3:30pm.

The tasks for each group were as follows:

  1. Task one: Prank call one of the numbers provided and tell a funny story. More points are awarded for longer phone calls.
  2. Task two: Steal a book from the library.
  3. Task three: Propose something to a member of staff in the café, and ensure your proposal is accepted.
  4. Task four: Fall asleep and get someone to wake you up; you may not speak.

Each task, unbeknownst to the students, had been set up to avoid any negative repercussions. Books had already been signed out of the library – but they hadn’t been deactivated. Prank calls would be made to other members of staff and to my answer phone. The café staff had been briefed to only say “yes” if a student’s proposal was sincere, and students were informed that their final task had to take place within the safety of the university campus.

Most groups eagerly sought to obey the task instructions to the letter, and sent screen shots of their phone call timings via e-mail or photo message. Others found some tasks too challenging and opted out, after apologising.

A Dilemma: I don’t get it? How to do disobedience properly

The timer stopped at 4:10pm. In a classroom full of excitement teams boasted about their ‘challenge’ stories to one another before we began our debate to reflect upon the game. I informed the group that we had a winning team, but that all the scoring was completely random and disconnected to the achievements of the groups. (However, there was still a prize – a very small bag of chocolates.)

A debate ensued about the tasks, with some groups noting that they completed every activity and should thereby be declared winners. I, however, noted that the instructions were to disobey, so by completing all the tasks, had they really won? Another group at the back of the room noted that they had refused to do the activities and had therefore disobeyed. I asked them what they had chosen to do instead, and they said that they were bored and had sat in the classroom waiting for us to return. I asked why they had chosen boredom as an alternative to the game: was this a way of punishing themselves for disobeying? There were plenty of things they could have done instead to reward their choice to ‘disobey’: for example, visited a local ice cream shop, watched a film, or had a nap. This led to much debate, with groups unpacking their experiences; some noted that no matter what they did they couldn’t win because they felt morally obliged not to undertake certain tasks or were embarrassed to try others.

We then talked about the links between their responses in relation to the invisible work of hegemony, noting how easy it is in our culture to feel morally trapped, compelled into particular behaviours and compelled to avoid other, ‘wrong’ ones. Where does this come from? The group that had felt emotionally torn when asked to steal a book talked about why they felt this way, noting that they felt a moral obligation not to disobey their parents (who teach: you shouldn’t steal). The groups also talked about previous experiences of disobeying authority at school, suggesting that if they didn’t do what they were told they might be put in ‘isolation’ (a strategy used by some secondary schools to punish bad behaviour by making a student work alone in a supervised room). The way hegemonic behaviours had been enacted by the group during the game formed a strong shared connection within the class, and students slowly started to make links between their chosen responses to the tasks and the reasons why they had reacted in that way. Despite holding, individually, vastly different moral and political views of the situation, this time the group didn’t seek consensus but made reasoned responses to the game, connecting theories from previous sessions to justify their actions within the game.

disobedience files

To end the session, I picked up a previous thread of debate among us, about student concern with grades as a quantifiable measure of success and how this might contribute to neoliberal thinking by fostering a sense of competition within the education system. The students were adamant that they weren’t concerned with success in this way, so I asked them: ‘If this isn’t important to you, then you won’t mind me not revealing the name of the winning group, will you?’

The room erupted. I asked why they needed to know who had won, when I had already told them the scoring was totally nonsensical and they had just claimed not to be interested in competition or grades. They responded that they ‘Just did!’, that ‘they had earned it’, and that I was being unfair: they had done this exercise well for me and deserved to know. I told the group I would make a compromise:

‘I will give you a choice: if you are okay with not knowing the result, you can leave now. I will give you two minutes to decide; after this point I will announce the winner and give away the prize’.

Only 1 person out of 41 students left the room… more work to be done.

About Nicola Abraham: I am a Lecturer in Applied Theatre Practices at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, London, England. Over the past 10 years I have worked in a range of community settings within the UK and abroad. As an Applied Theatre Practitioner I have had the privilege of working with many people in society from Camden Carers, Arts for Dementia, KAYAK youth club, an Orphanage in Zmiaca Poland, Pupil Referral Units, Schools, Psychiatric units, Women’s Advocacy Groups, Children’s Charity contexts for vulnerable youth, Crossroads bi-communal project in Cyprus, Drama in Education in Germany (2016), IDEA conference in Austria (2015) on intercultural practice and Hellenic Drama in Education in Greece (2013). I have also undertaken a research project with women’s prison theatre company Clean Break. I am currently conducting research into the potential of theatre to affect change in the lives of vulnerable youth in inner city contexts.

 

On learning to say no, and to feel good about it too!

There’s an analogy I used when my mom first got sick, early in 2014, to help my dad realise that taking care of her was, of course, a good thing, but that he also had to take care of himself. In fact, he had to take care of himself first, so that he could also take care of her properly. It comes from that thing every air traveler loves to ignore with gusto: the safety briefing. It’s the bit that says: secure your mask before assisting others.

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I’m very big on self care – in theory. I am very well aware that I’m of no use to my students when I’m sick or over-tired, or worn down emotionally (although do I cancel class? Nope). I also know that if I want to ride my bike faster (which I always do) I need to rest properly. (I write about cycling for Fit is a Feminist Issue if you want to learn more). So I would like to think that, in the event I was in a plane-travel emergency, I would absolutely, totally follow instructions and secure my mask first, before looking around to see whom I could help.

I’d like to think so, but I doubt it.

I’m a perennial yes-sayer. Ask me to do shit; chances are I’ll say sure, of course! Usually with enthusiasm; somehow I convince myself in the moment that it’ll be fun/good for me, so of course, bring it on! Sometimes with covert frustration, but firm in the belief that saying no would bring very unwelcome consequences indeed. What these are remain abstract, but I’m sure they are lurking in the underbrush, ready to bite me in the shins.

Where does this urge come from? Part of it has to do with cultural socialisation: women are socialised to say yes – or rather, we are socialised not to say no, except under extreme circumstances. (And, incidentally: the fact that women are socialised to say yes most of the time is part of what makes debates about sexual consent so tricky, the obviousness of “no means no” so hard to make stick.) Historically, women are the helpmeets, the obedient ones, the ones who clean up the shit with a smile so that everyone else in the household still feels good about themselves afterward. Ever notice how women who take care of themselves well by firmly insisting on their rights – to their own time; to their own bodies; to their human rights – are often labeled sluts or bitches or worse? Or trolled mercilessly online? These are the women who have learned against the odds to say NO, to set their own boundaries independent of patriarchal expectations.

But a big part of this urge to say yes, for me, is also down to the social lessons the academy teaches us, from grad school onward: that we always need one more publication, so if someone asks you to write a chapter for their obscure forthcoming collection of course you say yes; that we always need to earn the next round of glowing course evaluations or else be branded a bad teacher, so of course you make yourself available to your students 24/7; that we need to be seen to be team players, so of course you do that committee gig on overload. The academy breeds imposter syndrome; all the measures in place to judge our impact are designed to help us feel, consistently, not good enough. And that feeling creates the panicked urge just always, always to say yes, even when the yes drips with years of accumulated resentment.

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I was warned at the start of my academic career to guard against being constantly asked to do stuff, and to learn to say no as often as yes in order to protect my time and my own best interests. (That is, to preserve enough time for me to do the 40% of my job that is research and publishing-driven. We’re not talking lolling on the couch eating bonbons, friends. I wish!)

I knew there was absolutely no chance I was going to become one of those people who doesn’t get asked; those people are demonstrably a) incompetent, or b) assholic when on committees. I am highly competent, more’s the pity, and I’m allergic to being mean to people (just one more way I have been well socialised as a woman in the workforce, let me say). But I figured, early on, that there was a fighting chance I could learn to say no and mean it.

Alas: somehow, along the way, I did not manage to acquire this crucial bit of academic survival kit – or perhaps I got hold of it, but never properly internalised it. Anyway, I didn’t recognise how seriously I’d misfired on this one until last year, when a handful of extremely large things (a book; the organization of a large conference; the launching of a new academic program) I’d said yes to over a period of about 18 months all came to a head at the very same time. Suddenly, I was living through the profoundly exhausting consequences of three separate yeses. And it occurred to me that no way could these consequences have been worse than what would have happened if I’d said no.

So, emerging from this self-imposed trauma, I decided I was going to teach myself how to say no and like it. Feel relieved and gratified by it. Feel not guilty about it!

To do this, I turned to a handful of my best loved and trusted colleagues, all women, and asked them these questions:

  • when was the last time you said no to something that really made a difference to your work-life balance and/or mental health? How did saying no “go”? (IE: how did you do it, and were there repercussions?)
  • when was the last time you WISH you’d said no to something? What would you do differently this time around, if you had it to do again? (Or: HOW would you handle it?)

I told them they could feel absolutely free to ignore the request; I did NOT want to add to anybody’s workload! I explained that I was crowd-sourcing ideas for this post, and that they should let me know if I could quote them, or paraphrase them, and whether or not I could identify them. (Most chose anonymity, but were happy to have me share their thoughts.)

I learned a lot of great stuff thanks to this exercise, and I’m eager to pass it on. Herewith, then, the distillation – plus a list of top tips you can pin up above your computer (I know I will).

***

One colleague at a similar stage in her career to mine noted that the biggest challenge, when it comes to saying no, is managing the temptation. Do I NEED to do this thing, or do I WANT to do it? And what exactly do I mean by these terms? Where do I place the distinction between them? She wrote:

As I think about it I realize that saying no feels pretty privileged. It is like the CV of failures. Privileged to say no because I don’t NEED to do that thing. But part of that I think is also calibrating what we mean by ‘need.’ My child-self mixes up ‘need’ and ‘want.’ Saying yes sometimes is a want rather than a need. Saying yes brings warm fuzzies of validation and achievement. … But beyond system imposed needs, I do think that the hardest thing is to self-calibrate those needs and wants. If I think about saying no as a privilege then saying no can feel pretty good too. I am fortunate that I get to say no.

These reflections on “no” as a privilege – one we need to be willing to grant ourselves, which is not often easy, but which remains a privilege nonetheless – coincide with the thoughts offered by one of my senior mentors, someone whose career advice I trust almost without fail. She noted that we always, always over-inflate the consequences of saying no, especially once we are at the very privileged stage, in North America, of having tenure:

In my experience, there aren’t repercussions for a ‘no’, beyond some generally short-lived grumpiness … saying no doesn’t ever mean you won’t be asked again … and again … in the months and years ahead.  Probably the most important thing to teach oneself is that it doesn’t have to be you – there’s always another person on the “ask” list.

Maybe that last statement is the critical one: there’s always someone else. We might not like to think we are dispensable, or replaceable – oh god, my imposter syndrome is calling! – but of course we are. Maybe embracing that reality could be, should be a good thing!

This leads to another key insight, offered by another senior mentor and friend. She struggles with health issues that impact her ability to work on a regular basis, but rather than making an issue of it she finds herself overcompensating by saying yes too often. For her, the struggle isn’t saying yes or saying no, but knowing her own body’s limits and respecting them, rather than trying to cover them up by repeatedly transgressing them:

The ‘how to’ isn’t hard: there are usually enough things on any academic’s plate that we can say ‘I can’t manage it at this time,’ or ‘I can’t manage it until x is done’ or ‘until we get a replacement for y who left’ or ‘there simply aren’t enough hours in the day.’

It may be that the question is ‘how much is enough.’ I mean that. And I recognise the absurdity in saying it when I write it, but I think it’s there.

“How much is enough for me?” “What do I mean when I say I need to do this thing?” Or, as a couple of respondents noted, will I enjoy this?

This last question is actually not superficial, but crucial. It’s directly connected to this one: will this thing, a lot of work or not, nourish me in a way that will allow me to do it well? That will allow me to learn from it and not resent it, and encourage others to do it well? As another peer noted very succinctly, I don’t do X because I hate it, and lots of people don’t hate it and would rather do it. I do Y because I love it and do it well; it’s a trade-off and one we should feel confident making. If everyone pulls their weight by doing (largely) the stuff they love, we will actually discover most of the bases will cover themselves.

To end, I’d like to share an extremely sensible list of things to consider before saying no, shared by my senior mentor with the iron-clad advice. This is a keeper, folks!

  1. Don’t say yes or no immediately.  Keep to a 24-hour rule.
  2. Ask yourself:  will I learn anything?  Is my voice necessary/useful?  Will it be fun (at least some of the time!)?  Could a colleague/graduate student benefit from this opportunity instead?
  3. Think about time: if I say yes, how will this fit in my schedule?  Do I need something in order to make it work (money, course release, grad assistant, stepping away from another committee or whatever)?*
  4. Good to remember: saying “no” might be a huge nuisance to the person asking, but it is never fatal.

(*She also notes: If you are being pressured for a “yes,” even when you’ve given a “no,” then ASK FOR SOMETHING that will help! If you don’t get something in return, then your contribution isn’t that important to the person asking, and you can say no secure in the knowledge that you made your willingness but also your needs clear.)

My thanks to everyone who replied to my request for thoughts on saying no, and especially to the beloved friend who wrote this, and made me laugh out loud:

Hi Kim,

Sorry for the slow response. This is a fascinating topic for your blog but I’m afraid I must decline writing at this point due, in large part, to the time needed to devote to the many other things I’ve failed to decline. Sigh. Happy to discuss strategies in person at some point, though.

I look forward to reading the blog.

And yes, we plan to chat it out – over drinks, natch! – sometime soon.

In solidarity,

Kim

The Year That Was, 2016: What Happened When the Students Created the Supplementary Course Reader and Set Their Own Deadlines

Back in May 2015 I wrote three reflective posts about the academic year just passed: what worked, what didn’t, what I hoped to do differently in 2015-16. This year, instead of following that formula, I’ve decided to report on two of the changes I implemented. One went substantially better than I thought it might – though there’s room for improvement, as you’ll see – and the other kind of tanked, in a way I didn’t anticipate – though in hindsight I totally get it, and managed to salvage it nevertheless.

1. Students Create the Supplementary Course Reader

Last year, my teaching assistant for my 20th Century Theatre course, Madison Bettle, built an amazing tool for us all: a reader on our website designed to fill in some of the historical, cultural, and political gaps in student knowledge that we might not get to (or get to fully) in class. Labelled the “supplementary course reader”, Maddie’s tool was a hit with students, who reported using it constantly to prepare for class, essays, and exams. When she reflected on the reader’s popularity, however, she noted that it was a bit too one-way for her liking: it was content delivery online, which meant it also smacked of the kind of passive learning we both like to avoid. She suggested perhaps students ought to be involved in the reader’s creation, as well as its downloading, in future years, and I eagerly took up that suggestion.

This year, 20th Century Theatre began with a visit from Maddie, who explained the supplementary course reader’s construction and purpose to the new cohort; this information complemented the course reader assignment description I’d set out in the syllabus. Students were responsible for creating two course reader entries over the year, one per term; they could choose the weeks they would contribute, as well as the topics they’d write about, or they could suggest their own topics. Each contribution was worth 5%, and I purposefully designed the task so that it would be fairly easy for a committed but not necessarily gifted student to achieve 5/5. Students needed to tick 5 boxes, from being on time with their draft submission to me, to covering some basic content bases, to editing their draft in accordance with my suggestions and uploading their final draft to our website; they did not need to create something perfect, nor indeed essay-like. The purpose of the reader, I stressed, was to contribute to our shared understanding of the periods and cultures under discussion in class, not to make an argument or demonstrate exceptional grammar skills. Newsy posts were good; so were photos and videos, plus useful links in the Works Cited. It was fine to start with Wikipedia, but not a good idea to stop there. To assist students confused by this (admittedly somewhat unique) assignment, I created a model entry for the first week and talked us through it in class. I also made a point of drawing attention (in a good way) to the first couple of posts made by students in September.

[You can take a look at our crowd-sourced supplementary course reader here.]

The pros? My god, the students were on the ball about this. Maybe a quarter of the time did I have to remind them to get me drafts on the Monday afternoon before the week’s classes; once I’d done so they were immediately responsive, and of course by that point I’d already read and commented on the work submitted by students ahead of the game. I found it really important to vet the drafts; I hadn’t realised until the first wave of work came in that the draft editing stage was my opportunity to arrest any egregious mistakes that probably ought not to be published on the web. (Although the class’s WordPress site was designed not to be easily searchable by bots or trolls, it was nevertheless public.) At the same time, though, the students were clearly making valuable contributions to our collective knowledge as a class, and I also used my read of their first drafts to encourage them to augment ideas, both with text and with supporting images and videos.

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The cons are all down to me. In fact there’s really just one big con: I was so busy imagining this assignment and creating the scaffolding for students to contribute to the reader that I forgot entirely to think about how the reader could be used, actively, in class or toward future assignments. I often pointed at the week’s contributions in class, noting whenever possible links to our discussions or to my or my TA’s pocket lectures; I don’t think that was enough, however, and I felt at year’s end like all that great material was just sitting there on the website, underused. I did not – again, not really thinking enough about application! – ask the students on the mid-year survey how the course reader contributed to their weekly prep, nor did the stats WordPress offers give me enough information about who used the course reader page when. (Maddie’s reader was exceptionally well used because she was an instructor on the course; I’d really like to know to what extent students were willing to use one another’s work as authoritative. My guess is: less than I’d hope, more than I fear.)

So, while I’ll certainly keep this assignment for future iterations of the course, I’ll give a great deal more thought next time to how its materials will apply to student learning outcomes overall, and I’ll poll the students actively on how they use the course reader materials. I’ll probably also design a larger, capstone assignment for the course with the reader in mind.

2. Students Set Their Own Deadlines

Still in 20th Century Theatre, I decided to hand power to each student to decide when they/she/he would hand in the theatre review assignment, as well as the major research essay assignment. In the first case, we took two field trips to see shows in Toronto, one in November and one in January, and students had the option to review either show, handing in reviews the week after the field trip. In the second case, students were given a roster of dates to pick from in March and early April, and could hand in their research essays on any of the three, provided they selected their due date in advance. We chose dates together before Reading Week, when our research librarian Melanie Mills came to speak to the class about time management. The rule was that students could ask for “extensions” on their original deadlines up to and including the final suggested due date, as long as those extensions were requested before their chosen deadline rolled around. Plus, a bonus for anyone handing in on the first or second suggested date: feedback from both me and my TA Meghan, plus a chance to “do over” for a better grade.

I – VERY naively, clearly! – assumed students would take full responsibility for their learning as a result of this process, and hand stuff in according to the schedules they set for themselves. Students often complain to me that their stuff in my class is due the same week as everyone else’s class’s stuff; I figured if I gave them the option of picking their own due dates, and encouraged them to look at their schedules and think in advance about how to balance their assignments, they’d nail it AND stop complaining to boot.

Um. Ya. Yup. Right.

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It turns out students are way human, and procrastinate about their own self-imposed deadlines exactly as well as I do. Loads of them picked the first deadline; by the end, only two or three of 25 actually handed in that day. (Similarly, while everyone professed the best of intentions with the theatre review assignment, only two students reviewed the November performance.) They came to me shame-faced, asking if they could extend; true to my word, I granted them the extensions requested, and could only commiserate with them about how hard it is to stick to a deadline you impose on yourself. When the advantages are theoretical (I can party AFTER I hand in!) and the consequences limited… well, we all kind of suck at sticking to our word.

In the end, though, the abject failure of the set-your-own-deadline task was saved beautifully by a meta-assignment I attached to the research essay. Students were invited to keep a time management journal, writing at least four entries in it reflecting on how the preparation for their research essays was going (and on how they were doing at sticking to their deadlines). The return was golden: create a time-management plan (in class with me and Melanie at the start of the process), write the entries, and hand in with your research essay’s final draft, and you’d be rewarded with a bonus 5% on top of your essay mark, no strings attached.

To my surprise, students DID keep the journals. (Admittedly, I offered short bursts of time in class on occasion to write entries, guaranteeing a certain amount of buy-in.) And in keeping them, they took a surprising amount of time and space to reflect on what went wrong when they failed to keep to their originally chosen deadlines. The TM task, in other words, allowed students to confront their bad time management habits directly, and to think carefully about why they had not managed to take full advantage of the opportunity to set their own, more effective, deadlines for the research essay. While I would have liked to see students better use their time to begin with and hand in early for the do-over opportunity, I was really glad to read so many honest, forthright self-analyses, evidence that, at the very least, I got students thinking about how much their schedule chaos is down to their own making, rather than their profs’ tendencies to, you know, schedule final assignments at the end of term.

(Plus, it’s kind of a relief to know that your prof is also great at procrastinating, and is constantly working on that … I wasn’t shy about sharing this all-too-human reality with them, either.)

So I think I’ll use the choose-your-own-adventure deadline option again too – though this time primarily to watch students realise, along with me, how hard it is to work effectively within so much freedom. Something tells me that’s the best lesson to learn, and to learn early.

Kim