New Year, Old Memories

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

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

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

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

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

Not that kind. But you get it.

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

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

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

Colleen

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

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

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

The muppets: seriously epic.

Kim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Kim,

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

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

-C

Kim

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

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

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

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

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

Colleen

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

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

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

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

Kim

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

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

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

End of Term Evaluations & Student Feedback – Part I

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

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

bb59aab0-27d6-47ae-bc97-4eb860ac2648

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

Practically, they are far murkier.

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

evals_0

I find all of this annoying.

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

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

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


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

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

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

iStock-542551546

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

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

 

 

Reflecting on Teaching & Elections

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

Tune in next time for Part II from Joanne Tompkins!

I wake up groggily.

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

Elections Canada

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh boy.

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

Feminism & Theatre

Six weeks later, I was proven right.

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

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

Things were not normal, however.

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

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

Opening

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

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

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

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

How do I encourage inclusive, respectful, dialogue?

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

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

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

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

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

Teaching Transformation: Educating therapists in a relational context

When I went to school as a child and then as a young adult, I never thought of school as anything other than a place you learned things. I learned to do some chemistry, I learned about philosophy, I learned about feminism. Yet I didn’t become any of those things through my learning, at least not in a way I noticed.

After a few years of trying to be a lawyer after I learned how to do it, my great dissatisfaction with that process led me to a place where 1. I had a mental breakdown and 2. I needed to figure out what was next, because I clearly had not learned to be a lawyer, even though I knew how to do it.

Thanks to https://morguefile.com/creative/jim113/1/all for the photo

I wandered around in the wilderness for a year or so and then found something that looked promising. It was a tiny private psychotherapy training program and now, 19 years later, I’m a teacher in that program. In that school, I had a very alternative experience of learning a thing. I didn’t learn about it. I learned to become it and I did that through performing it, from the very first day.

So, when Kelsey approached me to contribute to this blog and I saw the blurbs meant to be the seeds of blossoming blog entries to come, I nearly jumped out of my skin to say yes to this project.

I am not an academic in the traditional sense. I have lots of education and more than a few degrees, none of which ever formally taught me to teach. I source my skill in the classroom from, amongst other things, my passionate belief in the power of the work I do.[1]

The ideas that I discuss here may or may not reside in the academic literature as a methodology or approach and I will freely admit I wouldn’t know. However, I also know there is value in the sort of “from the ground up” perspective I’m bringing here and I know that is one of the goals of bringing more voices into this forum.

37662c40222df7ead3aa82d53fd7b509

Professional learning can be a very passive experience. After all, the idea of professional education involves making sure that students acquire a set of knowledge and skill that meets a “universal standard” within some sort of regulatory frame. Universal standards are often codified by way of content or a practical skill and the way a student demonstrates them is through testing or performing a task.

Those elements are all present in my teaching. We ask students to read material and demonstrate the understanding of it through engagement in writing and discussion. We also ask them to practice in front of their teachers and peers through exercises and practice therapy dyads. Yet, I’m also aware that we do something else with these students in the way we are teaching them, something more profound than a knowledge and skill acquisition endeavour. It’s this element that I want to explore here.

My first question to myself is:

How do I even know this is different than other kinds of teaching or professional education?

I suppose I can answer that because I’ve done quite a bit of other kinds and nothing ever felt like this to me. I can also observe that I was asked to come teach this thing most profoundly on the basis that, in my every day work and life, I was the thing that I was being asked to teach. I want to highlight this simple language I’m using. I was asked because I “was the thing”, not because “I knew how to do the thing”.

Let me explain the “thing” a little more.

The approach we teach is a modality of psychotherapy but it isn’t really a technique, as narrowly understood. I like to tell my students that it’s a “sensibility” or a “way of being” in session that generates the conditions that allow for healing and growth.

Ideally, we create a therapeutic container in which a client feels safe, connected, emotionally regulated and profoundly understood. In that sort of relationship, stalled developmental processes reengage and all manner of things (symptoms, patterns, awareness, relational skill) improve.

So, I am tasked with somehow getting my students to a place where they can be the kind of person who can skillfully provide that kind of environment. Not only that, I want them to know how to handle what comes up when that environment is difficult for the client to create, maintain or tolerate. That is HARD. It would be extra hard if all we did was read books about it and write papers tests on it and then try to do it with only some vague notion of “active listening” and not a lot else.[2]

The question is: How do we do it? 

The answer? By “being the thing”.

Foundationally, we try engage all of our students as authentically connected and caring human beings. Our students are in a set of complex processes. These processes include not only the professional education they are engaged in but also their lives, relationships and histories outside school. We assume and invite them to impact and be impacted by our process.

Likewise, the facilitators are in process, impacted by the relationships within the teaching environment and our own lives and histories. We are constantly aware and mindful of how we leverage all of this into the transformative work of becoming a therapist. Becoming a therapist and being a client are parallel processes in this model.

For example, in a relational therapy, a client can eventually come to expect that their therapist will consistently provide feedback that evidences that therapist’s profound understanding of the client’s subjective state. This is the core experience that allows for the reactivation of developmental processes. Sometimes, the therapist doesn’t get it right and sometimes that results in a retraumatizing experience for the client, complete with a raft of negative emotions, angry outbursts and hurt feelings.

When this happens, it is the therapist’s job to untangle the interaction in a manner that conveys an understanding of how it happened, the therapist’s own role in the relational “miss” and also, if possible, to deepen the client’s understanding of how their implicit relational knowings (developed early in life) contribute to the intensity of hurt and dysregulation. This is a delicate dance that somehow conveys acceptance and understanding while encouraging re-evaluation of old ways of being and promoting affect integration and regulation.

Similarly, students have an expectation of being held in this program a certain way, even if it is only at the level of “teach me the things I need to know”. Inevitably, we fail them somehow and, in those moments, we are challenged to acknowledge, repair and deepen our understanding of the relational event that precipitated their disappointment.

Susan Tarhish

Susan Tarshis

We try very hard not to hide behind institutional systems of defense and deflection but rather invite the issues into process so that we can resolve them in a relationally sound way. By that I mean a way that promotes feelings of security, growth, deepening connection and community.

If all that sounds like a lot of work, well, you are darn right it is. Why would anyone ever agree to teach with those kinds of really intimate demands for relational engagement, with a student body of nearly 40 people?

My gut answer is that it is the most important job in the world because it’s teaching people to go out and do one of the most important jobs in this world. I am not even talking about the job of being a Registered Psychotherapist in the province of Ontario. I’m talking about going out in the world knowing how to skillfully navigate your relational environment in a way that feeds healthy community. I’m talking about “being the thing”.

Maybe this is sounding profoundly arrogant, that I not only teach people to be good therapists but also help them to be better people.

Yet, I’ll stand my ground on that one. I KNOW I am a better, more skilled, more able, more open, more resilient human in relationship because of the work I did in this program.

When our students graduate, most of them (certainly not all of them) speak to the profound change, including turmoil, that the training brought to their lives. They speak to the complicating of their emotional and relational landscape and their gratitude and wonder at the transition they have made.

It’s not perfect. It’s messy and sometimes it even hurts but teaching this way is one of the most impactful things I have done with my life thus far. I’m pretty sure that’s a definition of an “Activist Classroom”.

[1] The thoughts I’ve put together here are based on my experience and not meant to be the official position or methodology of the school.

[2] I will confess this may have been my experience in the more academically formal environment in which I got my University education in counselling.

Saying Hello: An Introduction, and a Meditation on Beginning of Term Introduction Activities

Hello All – I’m Kelsey Blair! I do a lot of things: I research and write about performance, sport, circus, and musical theatre; I work as a sessional instructor at a university; I write basketball novels for ten to thirteen year old girls; I make theatre; I watch daytime soap operas; I play and coach and administrate sports, and I recently (unofficially) ordained a wedding! Now, I also work with Kim and help curate the Activist Classroom. And, you know what? I couldn’t be more excited about it!

Kelsey, ordaining a wedding, a performance that felt a lot like teaching but with better lighting.

It is fitting to introduce myself to this blog the first week of September, the start of term at most Canadian and American universities. As an instructor, I often feel like the first week of class is an introduction-juggling act:

“Meet me! Meet my teaching style! Meet the course content! Meet the assignments! Meet the reading schedule! Meet the policies! Meet each other!”

I find facilitating this last introduction (between students) challenging. This is particularly true in smaller classes where interaction is a vital part of the course. I have tried many of the standard introduction activities: partner introductions; small group introductions; class-wide activities (Arts majors, back corner! Business majors, front corner!). Most students will go through the motions – especially if I throw the full force of my enthusiasm behind them. But, I’ve often felt dissatisfied with the results.

In a lot of ways, this dissatisfaction is a product of the tension I feel between the pedagogy of post-secondary education and the bureaucracy of teaching in a post-secondary institution.

On the one hand, I truly believe that students learn better in smaller classes if there is a sense of temporary community. Community doesn’t just manifest. It takes time and work. On the other hand, colleges and universities are, by their very nature, policy-heavy institutions. Part of my job is to create, implement, and, to my occasional dismay, enforce policies. Both of these things need to be done starting the first day of the course, and it’s hard to do them simultaneously.

Not only that, the start of term is introduction-saturated for students, and I’ve found that key information – like, you know, their classmates’ names – often doesn’t stick.

So, last semester, I tried something different. Rather than doing a quick, high-energy, activity, I opted for a slower, more creative, student-to-student intro activity: mug decorating.

For context, the course was a once-a week, three-hour, upper year undergraduate theatre course in the Department of Theatre and Film at the University of British Columbia. The topic of the course was performance studies. There were fourteen students, most of whom were third and fourth year theatre studies or theatre production undergraduates. I had taught twelve of the fourteen students before – in either lecture or seminar classes – so most of the students knew me, but many did not know each other. My aims for the activity were four-fold:

  1. To provide dedicated class-time to introductions, demonstrating the importance of interpersonal communication and community in the context of the course.

  2. To find a creative, and hopefully somewhat more memorable way, to get students to introduce themselves to one another.

  3. To create re-usable “name-tags” (the mugs) that students could 1) put out in front of them every class, to help with name prompting, and 2) use for beverages throughout the semester.

  4. To encourage the students to begin to apply the week’s readings.

To prep for the activity, I purchased fourteen mugs, a large green bin (for storing), and dish soap from a local dollar store. When the first day of class came, I gathered markers, string, tape, and really a lot of stickers from my teaching supplies cupboard and threw everything in the green bin.

I began class by working through my “performance of the syllabus” and did a discussion/activity that engaged with the week’s readings. Then, I turned to the mugs. After introducing the activity, the students enthusiastically started decorating. I was feeling chuffed.

 

Then, I attempted to facilitate a conversation.

To get the students thinking about the relation between the readings and our activity, I asked questions like: What gets carried out when we say our favourite colour is green, pink, or maroon? How do we interpret other people’s “introduction performances”? What information (gesture, tone of voice, colour choice) inflects our interpretations?

The questions worked well enough but facilitating discussion was a challenge. I struggled to balance the informal vibe of the crafting activity — which encouraged an organic flow of multiple conversations — with in-depth and focussed discussion that encouraged consecutive, rather than overlapping, discussion.

In the end, the students decorated their mugs, but I’m not sure they thought much about performance. I walked out a little disheartened and moderately concerned. Was it the end of the world that the conversation wasn’t as rigorous as I’d imagined? No. Was it ideal, especially on the first day of class? It was not.

Would I try the activity again?

Despite the bobbled discussion facilitation, I think I would. The mugs were used as nametags throughout the first half of semester, which helped students call each other by name (full disclosure: I kept the mugs and brought them weekly so the students couldn’t lose or forget them. I also brought dish soap and insisted that they put the mugs in front of them on the table for the first six weeks of class). The crafting did encourage low-stakes student interaction. And, most importantly for me, the mugs prompted the actions of community – sharing the tape, passing stickers from person to person. So, even if the execution could have been better, the activity still achieved some of its goals, and in doing so, helped unsettle some of that tension I often feel around introductory exercises.

What are your favourite introduction activities?