So what’s next, then?

Hello again! Long time no see.

Actually… this may be the longest I’ve gone between posts in the five years since I began this blog. Holy crap.

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What happened? Well, I started teaching again after a sabbatical, which followed a house move, and which accompanied the writing of a book (which I’m happy to report I finished on 1 March, right on schedule). When the book wrapped, everything that had been on the back burner slid forward – and gosh, what a lot there was to slide. Exhaustion crept up on me quietly from behind… and before I knew it I was the one who was cooked. I spent most the second half of March forgetting to turn off the burners on my gas stove.

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(No, really. It’s not part of the metaphor!)

But something else also happened in March. After I completed the book, I found myself taking stock of the process I’d undergone. Of what I’d learned about my writing practice; of how I’d changed my writing practice.

Of what I was liking about my job and what I was hating about my job.

Of what I wanted to write next; of where I wanted my writing to take me next.

As I noted in my unschedule follow-up post in January, the writing experiment I undertook in order to start and finish my book project in five flat months was a huge success: I learned that I am exactly the kind of person who responds really well to the write-two-hours-each-day rule. I am deadline driven and I like a nice routine; I take pleasure in writing and I find that writing really is thinking for me. (For more on thinking-as-writing-as-thinking, click here.) I also tend to free-write in a way that comes out generally comprehensible and useable in a finished product, making free-write time productive for me in more than one way.

My revised unschedule for winter term provided a lot of slack, with large blocks of time only lightly scheduled, and only three writing hours marked off per week; I reasoned I would not be able to fit in much more. And was I ever right: in fact, since finishing the book, I have not written a single word in any of those scheduled writing hours. In a hilarious hairpin turn from my unschedule experience in the autumn, everything else about the unschedule has held – just not the writing.

When I realized this I found myself wondering why; of course the answer is obvious. My 40:40:20 workload* suggests I should spend two days per week on research and writing, all year round – but that’s utterly unreasonable in term, with its huge teaching and administrative commitments that typically spill far over their allocated three days per week. After dealing with students’ (increasingly harried) affect, the performance anxiety and adrenaline and exhaustion that comes with teaching a group of (young, increasingly harried, themselves exhausted) people for a sustained period of time, and the administrative palaver that managing courses with minimal secretarial support brings, one is not just tired; one is UTTERLY DRAINED. Add into that my personal commitment to sports (so that I can really enjoy my summer, I need to keep up my training in winter), and my new commute to and from campus by car (75 minutes; about 120km – each way), and, well, the truth is I had literally NO energy, physical or spiritual or intellectual, left in my body to write.

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My goodness, yes!

This taking-stock has provoked deeper questions for me. Like: am I doing what I actually want to be doing?

I loved writing – and writing a book for students! – so much that it literally changed me last autumn; I became a person with a regular writing practice and a smile plastered on her face. But working at a university – and at a university with at best a very ambivalent relationship to the arts – is also killing my writing spirit.

(I noted to a friend that my commute is new and I’ll get used to it; she noted in turn that the commute, in its newness, is also clarifying, foregrounding for me things I had not realized before. I now have the impetus to ask myself: is what I do on campus worth the 75-minute drive to get there?)

Further, the pleasure I took in writing the book was in large part pleasure taken as I dialogued in my head with the audience I was writing for. Not only does this contradict the things I’m feeling about teaching right now (aka tired; super over it), but it also calls into question what I want to write in future, as I recover the wonderful writing practice currently lying dormant while spring straggles into view.

I wrote a monograph but not a “monograph”; I wrote an academic book for students, which (as anyone who has undergone a REF cycle knows very well) is often perceived to be not a “real” academic book at all. Do I want to write another “academic monograph”? I’m not sure.

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Pretty much a monograph. Yup.

Who do I want to write for? – this is a question I’ve been asking myself a lot lately. As I noted in my post for Gary and Lena in February, I love collaboration; how do I want to write, and with whom? If the answer is – as I suspect it will be – not academic audiences, and not alone – how do I do that in a way compatible with my job?

I had a freakout on facebook about this a while back. In a particular fit of pique I wrote:

“what does it say about me that I have literally no desire to write another academic monograph?”

The reaction was significant, and surprising. Lots of people were on board with my urge to ditch the monograph form and write something else, or maybe just make some art for a change. But a number of people I care about and respect also took offence, suggesting that I was disrespecting an incredibly important form of knowledge transfer in our field.

Talking to one another as academics is hugely valuable, of course, and we need specialist forms and languages to do that. But somehow, I thought, I don’t want to do that myself, anymore.

Or do I? I suspect, looking back, that what I was reacting to on facebook wasn’t a particular writing mode or output, but actually the structures that shape our writing lives as academics.

Academic monographs come with a mental image: they imply a certain amount of solitary reading, research, writing. (See above…) We sequester ourselves or steal time from our teaching or seek leaves to carve out space for this work. We emerge with a product that, if we are lucky, a handful of people read; it lives out its life on library shelves, perhaps inspiring dedicated senior students as time goes on. As for us, we head back into the classroom, back onto the treadmill; we teach and graft and struggle until we can steal some more time, apply for more leave, disappear from campus into our studies, and do it again.

BUT.

Despite my anti-monograph facebook screed, this is apparently exactly what I’m craving right now: to disappear again into a space with my writing and find the joy my work brought me in autumn, a joy I have not felt in my work in a good while. But why, why, must I disappear? Why can’t teaching and writing co-exist for me in a way that allows one to feed the other simultaneously, that leaves me with more and not less energy?

How can I claw away some of the stress that attends my teaching practice and thereby make more breathing room for in-term writing, year-round writing, happy and maybe – but not necessarily – productive writing?

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The truth is that I don’t know what I want to write next. I’d like time to find out, and to find out, I’m going to need to write for a while and just see what happens. In order to permit myself that freedom to write, I’m going to have to reinvent the entire work structure (that is, 40:40:20, research:teaching:admin) that bolsters my new writing practice.

This doesn’t mean making another un-schedule, I’ve realized; as I proved this past month, it’s entirely possible for me to keep to the unschedule perfectly – except for the writing part.

Rather, it means refocusing the emotional attention I pay to teaching prep and teaching stress, admin graft and stress; perhaps it means compartmentalizing carefully some of that stress so that I can really leave it behind when I leave my campus office.

I don’t know how to do this yet, but I’m hoping to spend some time this summer figuring out a plan. Part of my summer will be spent reinventing (in fact: decolonizing) two of my regular courses (more on that in an upcoming post), and also in planning a brand new one. I hope that, as part of that teaching-side labour, I can find ways to weave my writing practice into my teaching practice, bringing these work things often thought to be disparate into a healthier alignment.

I imagine already that this might involve me experimenting with free-writing as prep; it might involve me building more free-writing into class time proper (and including myself in that free-writing, in class!). It may also involve me purchasing a folding bicycle, and writing on the train.

Like I said: not yet sure. But I’ll be sure to keep you posted.

Happy end of semester!

Kim

*40:40:20 = 40% research, 40% teaching, 20% service. Ya, right. ;-/

 

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Learning from the un-schedule

Back in September I wrote about my cunning sabbatical plan to organize my life according to an “unschedule”: a daily planner that begins with life stuff, and fits work in around it (or leaves “free” time blank for work, should work wish to happen). I respond incredibly well to deadlines and boundaries, so this seemed the ideal solution to my perennial sabbatical problem: TOO MUCH UNSCHEDULED TIME (IN WHICH TO PANIC).

I’ve now been following, to greater or (mostly) lesser degrees each day, my unschedule for about 3 months; it’s therefore time for me to take stock, and to report on how it’s worked out.

Was it the raving success I was hoping for? Was it a total disaster?

As we might have predicted, it was a bit of both. Which is no bad thing!

First, the good news: I achieved pretty much exactly what I had intended the unschedule to help me achieve. I have a book due in February, of which I had written not one word when I created the unschedule back on 21 September. I now have just over 42,000 of the 50,000 words expected by my publisher, and the book is shaping up really well.

Next, the less good news: while the unschedule helped me to prioritize a very decent balance between “work” and “life”, as I noted in my last post “life” does not equal “rest”, and I did not manage to achieve much of the latter (so much so that my chronic joint problems have been acting up, and I’ve been at least as exhausted as usual much of the time).

That’s not reflective of a problem with my unschedule, though; in fact, it’s something the next version (see below) may help me address.

Third, the fine print: mostly the unschedule wasn’t something I was ever going to use as a schedule. It was, rather, a kind of self-initiated Rorschach Test. And in that, it succeeded brilliantly. Below, I’ll try to take stock of what it taught me about myself, and I’ll share my revised unschedule for winter.

To start, here’s a reminder of what my unschedule, circa late September 2017, looked like:

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The unschedule was never meant to be a test of my resolve; I did not create it in order to follow it to the letter. Quite the contrary: I made it in part to measure my aspirations for my sabbatical days against the reality that is my daily life. I expected the two not to line up perfectly, but I also hoped to learn from the comparison.

To that end, I decided, for the first 20 or so days on the unschedule (roughly, a month of workdays), to keep a brief daily diary with times and tasks noted. The two could then easily be compared to see where my time was actually going.

Here are a few photos of my notes from those early days:

Looking back on the notes, a few things stand out.

First, Stuff Happens. Moreover, the Stuff that Happens is probably not worth judging (because judging it won’t change it). So I got up later than scheduled many times; I AM NOT A MORNING PERSON, AT ALL. Trying to schedule myself to become a morning person is unlikely, at this stage in my life, to change me. Other mornings got taken up with personal things when the man I’m dating stayed over; I panicked about that a bit until I remembered that having a life (including a sex life!) ultimately makes work bearable. And, after a time, he and I settled into a routine where I would write and he would work, too, after breakfast; that solved it. Sometimes I had to travel, or there were meetings, or… or… or… Again: STUFF HAPPENS. What matters to me, looking back, is how I dealt with these intrusions into the hoped-for ideal, since the ideal wasn’t ever going to be fully achievable.

My diary entries also reveal that, despite getting up later than scheduled or having other things get in the way around my scheduled writing time, I still prioritized writing daily, for about 2 hours give or take. After the writing, more or less anything could happen: I’d penciled in workouts and/or house things, maybe more work for afternoons, but the reality, I found, was that after the writing had happened I felt a mix of satisfaction and relief that would then let me get on with my day, in whatever form it took.

Notably, I rarely missed walkies with Emma The Dog. This made her very happy. It also brought me joy, which I think is incredibly productive.

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(Emma on a woodland trail near our new home. She’s distracted by a squirrel, or something even tastier.)

I’m generally a very active person, and my original unschedule included a lot of workouts; the challenge, I found, was that my new living situation (I moved to a new city in August) necessitated me getting into fresh activity habits based on the resources around me. I can ride my bike anywhere, but not when the wind is blowing at 50kph – and it helps if I already know the route home, in case of emergency. I love to row, but with winter coming on I needed to find a reliable place for land training. There’s a yoga studio near my house, but I haven’t loved many of the classes I’ve tried there. I’ve been experimenting with stair climbing, since there’s a lot of that available free in my new neighbourhood. And I’ve been swimming more than I expected.

All of this means that I did not keep to my un-scheduled fitness plan, in part because of all the trial and error. The trade-off, however, was a lot of useful learning about my new surroundings, and some valuable time spent settling into my new place.

Taking stock of the patterns in my diary, one thing has become crystal clear: the ONLY thing that was essential for me every day was writing. I can’t tell you what a revelation this has been!

I have resisted for a long time the common advice given to academics to write every morning for an hour, to “pay yourself first”, just to sit down and do it. Staunchly, I  insisted that such a strategy would not work for me/that I didn’t need it/that my writing does not work that way/fill in any excuse here.

The truth, my activity log showed me, is that sitting down with only my computer (but no email!) for a modest but set amount of time each day is an incredibly productive way for me to write. Requiring myself to make the time to think and write, and thus to think by writing, meant my vision for the book evolved, deepened, and changed for the better as I went along.

Most importantly, after a good couple of hours’ writing, I always felt renewed and strengthened, much as I often do at the end of a good workout. This I found remarkable, surprising, and so valuable – so much so that writing will be at the heart of any “un-schedule” I make from now on.

I also learned one other very important thing about myself from my (predictable) failure to adhere to the letter of the unschedule. I learned that I over-schedule myself, no matter what I do.

If I have down time, rest time, I judge myself: MUST GET BACK TO SOME KIND OF WORK! This might be housework, work-work, or athletic work. I do not permit myself to just sit there with a cup of tea, staring out the window.

But why the hell not? If anything, the fact that – despite unschedule, and despite sabbatical – I am at least as tired as usual this December is indicative of the problem with this sort of thinking.

If I had rested more this past term, might I have been more “productive” in my work-work? Maybe. Truthfully, though, more productive was not what was needed: I objectively produced a hell of a lot of research-related stuff. Had I rested more, though, I suspect I might be better prepared, right now, both physically and emotionally for Winter 2018 – in which I will start commuting to my campus responsibilities in London, Ontario, and in which all manner of winter-related crap is bound to rain down (probably on the highway while I’m driving, among other places).

Rest is in itself productive! We know this – sort of. Culturally, we’re still learning this message; personally, I’ve realized that I need to trick myself into rest, because I am a type-A, professional, middle-aged North American woman and old habits die hard. That’s why my new, simplified, improved un-schedule contains Less Stuff, and more room to manoeuvre.

Kim's winter 2017 unschedule

You’ll note that there’s still something in every block of time (save two), but I’ve made the blocks larger and less specific on purpose. The point is: within that block, everything I’ve listed either has to happen (teaching) or is likely to get done (row, or yoga, or walkies – though only walkies is *truly* essential. Dog owners will understand).

The only other fixed thing, for me, is the writing: I’ve made it a reasonable amount on purpose, just one hour each morning of the week that I am not commuting to classes. I’m hoping thereby to maintain my good new writing practice, and to nurture its tangible benefits, while also freeing myself to move a bit more flexibly around other tasks (and hopefully give myself time for rest, too).

Have any of you tried the unschedule, or variations, since September? If you have, I’d love to know how it’s going. Leave a comment or shoot me an email.

And meanwhile, have a really, productively joyful holiday break!

Kim

 

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.

3rd-nervous

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…

disobedience files 2

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.