On diversity, on Canadian stages, right now (part one)

It’s end of term and I’m swamped. I have LITERALLY no time to write ANYTHING… but then I went and promised a review of Anusree Roy’s brave new piece at Factory Theatre in Toronto to Stratfordfestivalreviews.com.

Bugger.

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Happily, I’d spent several days previous at an industry symposium at Modern Times Theatre in Toronto, where we talked at depth about what practicing cultural, gender, and ability diversity in our artistic and academic labour means right now – in the rehearsal hall, on stage, in the the audience, on the page.

Equally happily, my new friend Dhurin agreed to come to the theatre with me, and give me his perspective on the show (a full-on diasporic, new-to-Canada-living-in-Mississauga perspective, yo).

Click here to find out what happened next.

And, once I surface from the marking, look forward to a post on the meatier, more challenging, aspects of our discussions at the symposium.

Almost there!!!!

Kim

 

Write. Just write. And be amazed.

You might be familiar with this advice often given to graduate students and research faculty alike: if you need to get something written, set aside a bit of time every day – we’re talking, like, 20 minutes, maybe 30 – and just sit down and do it already. Be prepared for a lot of what you write ultimately to go in the bin. Be prepared to find it cringe-inducing to begin writing, not like what you appear to be writing, and yet still have to keep going until the egg timer makes its pinging sound. And be prepared for the thing you need written, amazingly, actually to get written.

I freely confess I’ve not followed this advice myself in recent years – and I have to say I regret it. I’ve realised lately that I’m not getting the writing done that needs (or wants!) doing, and while I often blame my teaching and service workload for clawing time away from my writing, especially in the school term, the sad truth is that I could easily find 20 minutes a day to write. I just choose not to find it – and my mood suffers as a result.

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This truth was driven home to me in late January when Melanie Mills, the instructional librarian attached to the Department of English and Writing Studies at Western, visited my modern theatre class to take us through a time management exercise. (You can read a bit more about that here.) This exercise is attached to the students’ current research essay task: in addition to writing their research essays, the students all made time management plans, and I asked them each to keep a time management journal. (Handing in their plans and journals with their essays guarantees them a free 5% on top of their research essay grades.) I also asked them to select their own, custom due dates for their essays; the idea was to give them the freedom to work their essays into their term’s labour in a way that made sense for their own, individual schedules. Of course, the time management tasks, plus the customising of due dates, had another purpose too: to force students to confront their procrastinating tendencies head-on, and to reckon with them.

What happened when I did the time management exercise with Melanie and the class back in January? Surprise, surprise: I ran smack into my own procrastinating tendencies. I learned that, on the scale she gave us, I score a bare 6/10 for TM skills. In particular, the exercise revealed that I am bad at setting priorities for myself. I tend to do the work that will create an easy sense of satisfaction at the end of a day (teaching/marking tasks, addressing emails and shrinking the inbox, writing blog posts […ahem]), and I put off for another, “protected” day the things that I deem most challenging and often most important to my sense of self (like writing). Of course, those “protected” days are a ruse. They usually don’t come. Or they come rarely. And when they do, the build-up is so severe that sitting in front of the screen to write becomes a stomach knot-inducing burden, an all-or-nothing high-stakes game.

Scoring a C in time management lit a bit of a fire under me. No, I’ve not been writing every day – not yet. (See my last post for the panic under which I’ve been working this term; I’m barely hanging on, but looking much forward to the change that end of term brings in three weeks’ time). But I have been thinking more and more about the ways in which we all (including me!) tend to equate writing with the highest of stakes, about how to lower those stakes a bit, and about different ways to help students, in particular, to recognise the value of setting aside just a small portion of time in a day, sitting down with the anxiety, pushing it to one side, and writing something, anything, just to see what happens.

I’ve been an advocate for short bursts of writing in the classroom for a while; I got religion while at Queen Mary, and I learned a huge amount from the team in the Thinking/Writing program there. The ethos behind that program is nicely captured in a very recent article by Neil Haave for the National Teaching and Learning Forum, in which Haave argues that writing is a thinking process, not just its outcome or record. Citing scientific research into the cognitive changes that writing induces, Haave writes,

By placing thoughts in the structure of a sentence, we produce vehicles of thought that then may be manipulated on the page or screen (Menary 2007). The act of manipulating the thought vehicles (sentences) is a way of manipulating our thinking by integrating different ideas—it produces thinking: Writing is thinking. Thus writing is not just about enhancing memory and recording thoughts—it is not simply the recording and transmission of information, though it does play that additional role. Rather, when writing sentences, creating new sentences and moving the contained phrases and container sentences around in new structures, the writer is actively thinking, bringing ideas together in new ways that illuminate each other in a manner unknown until that moment.

What this kind of research teaches us is, I think, ground-breaking: that when we write, stuff moves in the brain. We change. We develop. We learn, and we grow. It might not feel like it at the time, but that’s what’s happening: we’re learning and growing as we struggle to get word onto page.

This is a really liberating way of thinking about writing and the anxiety it brings, if you ask me. It puts in a very different, much more positive light those moments that, let’s face it, we ALL fear, that produce a lot of the fear that stops our writing from starting in the first place. That is: those moments when we hit a wall, don’t know where to go next, don’t see how all the ideas connect up… because our brains are in the process of making fresh, often complex, discoveries about how the ideas on the page will finally come together. We just don’t know what that looks like yet. We’re still working it through –  but we can only work it out by writing about and often around it. Ironically, these moments are the moments that necessarily precede the breakthroughs. They are also, however, the moments when many of us (me included…) often stop, panicked, and close the laptop.

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This photo is by Kalindy. See more here.

Haave says: “I believe that one of the reasons students have a difficult time writing is that they spend so much time thinking about what to write before they write as opposed to simply writing what they think.” The solution, for him, is to create as many opportunities as possible for students to write down what’s going through their heads as they work, and to share that low-stakes (not for grades!) writing with a peer partner as often as possible.

I use these kinds of low-stakes writing exercises in class all the time, and a number of past students have reported to me on their value for their own learning practices. But in honour of the specific challenges posed by our research essay task and time management meta-tasks this spring, last week in modern theatre I went one better. I turned our final class hour into a writing “retreat”, inviting students to come to class and just write for 50 minutes. Melanie was there to offer support, as was I and my TA, Meghan. We volunteered to talk through difficult issues with students, to read bits and pieces, to help with research challenges, and to brainstorm around thesis statements that just weren’t quite there yet. I explicitly styled this hour as a gift – students could choose not to come, though regular absence penalties applied, but I told the students that I hoped they would come, because when were they going to gift themselves a whole hour just to write, and then to put the writing away and get on with the day?

In the end, more than half turned up – and in mid-March. I’m calling that a win, for them and for writing-as-thinking. I just wish I’d given myself that hour to write, too.

Thoughtfully,

Kim

On Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls at the Shaw Festival (Part 2)

A little while ago I posted to this space the program note I wrote for the Shaw Festival production of Top Girls, one of my favourite plays by the prolific and inspiring British feminist Caryl Churchill. At that time I promised I’d write a review of the production after I saw it – which I did last Friday night, at the luminous premiere in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

We had a perfect evening for the festivities – cloudless blue skies dying to black under the twinkling lights of the Court House Theatre. Opening party-goers dined beneath a festive canopy in the gardens at the historic Lakewinds guest house before undertaking the short, picturesque stroll to the show. At the interval, we spilled outside with wine and ice-creams as the stars came out. Inside, the stars of the show lit up the stage. And yes: it was every bit as charming, as dream-like as it sounds.

Before I share my thoughts on the production proper – which I found smart, sharp, fun, and moving – I want to share the story of how I came to be at the glamorous premiere I’ve just described. Bear with me – there’s good reason for this diversion.

I’ve written program notes for several theatres in Canada and the U.K., and each company compensates essayists differently. I’ve been given honoraria (including by the Shaw), complimentary tickets to several productions (from festivals like Stratford that run a season in repertory), access to directors and key artists, as well as royalties from the subsequent reprinting of notes when shows go on tour. But this was new: Shaw invited me to attend the opening night dinner for Top Girls as well as the cocktail reception beforehand, during which I would meet both the talented artists who created the show as well as a large helping of wealthy donors, those who help keep Shaw going from year to year. Then we would all see, together, the opening performance itself, seated cheek-by-jowl with Shaw’s theatrical glitterati as well as a brace of critics from over the lake in Toronto.

The Shaw puts on a great party, and I and my companion had enormous fun sipping our gin and tonics under the big white tent. I won’t lie, though; I found it rather uncomfortable to be seated at a table with jobbing artists on one side and extremely rich people on the other (however generous, friendly, and philanthropically minded those people are). I could tell from brief looks and a few small moments of awkwardness that the artists around me were used to this routine: of course the dinner offers a good time, but it’s also work for them. They must be consistently convivial and forthcoming with their chat; they help to star-dust the evening for the donors who pay for elite access to the festival’s inner workings when they cut their big cheques. Then it dawned on me: I, too, was at work as I munched my seared tuna. No wonder I had been nervous beforehand! Although I’d not lit the show, designed costumes, acted or directed, I had provided creative labour for the festival. As they flattered me with a gala invite, the Shaw staff also slyly invited me to perform my virtuosity as a researcher and writer for those seated near me.

Again, lest I seem ungrateful for what was a genuinely gorgeous evening, let me say once more that I had a really nice time, and I suspect everyone around me did too. But that should not hide the fact that for some at the cocktails and supper party “pleasure” and “work” had to commingle inextricably. This is the nature of so much “creative class” labour today: you’re never off duty when it’s your job to manage the pleasure of others for profit. (For a smart, very critical look at the way the creative class has been imagined by urban theory over the last decade, check out this article by Jamie Peck.)

Creative (or “immaterial“) labour isn’t a new thing, of course: artists have always been linked to patrons with money. (If you’ve never seen Impromptu, watch it now!) But the emergence of the creative class as a broad spectrum group is a modern phenomenon, and in its current iteration it is tied to the rise of neoliberalism as a socio-political economy for the information age. Creative labourers generate content (they are writers, graphic designers, web developers), manage consumer experience (they are brand managers or ad execs), set a mood (if they are not designers, they work “in design”), shape a zeitgeist (inevitably, they write blogs. Ahem.) They may well be talented artists making real, tangible things – like beautiful pieces of theatre! – but just as importantly they create an aura, a sharp desire that makes others want to be a part of their culturally-aware awesomeness. The building and maintenance of this aura is key to the work accomplished by today’s creative workforce – just as it was key to the work the artists and I did under the tent at the Top Girls opening party.

Top Girls is a play about the cruelties of neoliberal economics: it pits its sixteen female characters against one another in the fight to the top of the “super-business-woman” pyramid. After eating my gala dinner and then watching director Vikki Anderson’s production, however, I realised that Top Girls is also very much a play about the pressures of the creative class, for women artists and brand executives alike. And while my gala experience was helpful in framing the reading I’m about to offer, it was ultimately two particularly innovative choices made by Anderson and her team that threw this production’s focus on the working lives of creative women into stark relief.

Fiona Byrne as Marlene in Top Girls.

(At right: Fiona Byrne as Marlene, Top Girls’ high-flying, smart-dressing main character. Photo by David Cooper.)

First, Anderson chose to show us the backstage labour involved in preparing to go on as one of Churchill’s strong female characters. Before the play began, and while the house lights were still up, we saw the cast enter one by one, sit at makeup desks, prepare their faces and put on their costumes – all while bopping and air-guitaring to ’80s pop and rock tunes selected by sound designer Thomas Ryder Payne. (Top Girls dates to 1982.) Throughout the show this backstage space returned as the women took off the trappings of one role and put on another; the conceit was clever and it spoke elegantly (as did Anderson’s director’s note) to the typically invisible grooming women are expected to undertake in their “off” hours in order to “stage” themselves for success at work each day. (Men, too, suffer increasingly from these expectations, I know; the pressure on women remains much more powerful.)

So Anderson’s frame-story was one about gender, power, and the performance of self – Judith Butler 101. But it was also more, and for me this “more” was the bit tied to the playful dancing. These women didn’t trudge on joylessly; they entered smiling, chatting, grooving, and eager to share some of this time with one another. Yes, we saw their silent work at their mirrors, but we also saw them coalesce as they worked into a community of artist-professionals who were supporting each other through their shared tasks. Several danced together; two exchanged quite intimate words and gestures. Most gave each other shoulder squeezes and short pep talks that I suspect were more for one another than for us – gestures of solidarity and support among a group of women about to go to work for the night, rather than performances of “play” for audience edification.

Laurie Paton as Jeanine in Top Girls.

(Laurie Paton prepares to become Jeanine in Act 2. Photo by David Cooper.)

Top Girls was written in the early years of Margaret Thatcher’s rule; it demonstrates how the cult of the individual she championed wrecks the potential for feminist community and feminist political solidarity across difference. Anderson’s frame-story implies that community is actually an essential component of success for a contemporary “creative” woman. Is it a bit utopic, perhaps unrealistic? Maybe. But, then again, each of these seven performers killed it on Friday night – so if those squeezes, grooves, and supportive words at the top of the show were made of real stuff, they sure did real work, and it got real results.

Julia Course as Angie and Tess Benger as Kit in Top Girls.

(Julia Course as Angie and Tess Benger as Kit. Photo by David Cooper. )

Anderson’s second innovation has to do with Angie, the high-flying main character’s not especially high-achieving niece. In many productions of Top Girls Angie is costumed blandly and played as a bit of a lump – exactly how her bitter mom (Joyce) and her successful aunt (Marlene) describe her to others. But Anderson clearly doesn’t believe Joyce and Marlene: Julia Course’s Angie is vivacious, wacky, smiley, full of life – frankly hilarious, a show-stealer. No wonder Kitty, the smaller girl down the road, wants to play with her all the time!

Course’s Angie is also glued to her exercise book, an item Churchill mentions only very briefly in Act 3 but which Course and Anderson choose to read as evidence of Angie’s burgeoning creativity, a zest for drawing, words, and imaginative play. Here, Angie isn’t a dullard who “isn’t going to make it” because she’s not smart or ambitious (as Marlene declares meanly at one point); nor is she doomed to failure because she doesn’t come from money and hasn’t had opportunities. This Angie’s trouble comes from the fact that her brand of imagination – the kind that takes wing under forts built of blankets, or in notebooks hidden under mattresses – isn’t valued by the culture around her, a culture that lusts after the kinds of creativity Marlene peddles when she tells her employment agency clients how to present themselves in an interview, what parts of themselves to reveal and what parts to conceal. Marlene’s creativity is for-profit, carefully honed and framed, but Angie’s creativity is messy, chaotic, just for fun – for pleasure with no strings attached. If she could tame it, shape it, sell it… well then, surely she could make it. But that’s not Angie’s style – and that’s why Marlene condemns her as someone with no style at all.

Top Girls opens with a lavish dinner party to celebrate Marlene’s promotion to director of her agency; I suspect Marlene would make a pretty attractive guest at any opening night gala. Angie, on the other hand, would be a complete disaster at a glam dinner: all legs, arms flailing; all too-small, too-shiny dresses and mad, frenetic energy. Or, then again, maybe she’d be just what more gala dinners need: less work, more unbridled play.

Party on, ladies!

Kim

Top Girls at the Shaw Festival, part 1: 1982 and all that

This year’s Shaw Festival, the big summer theatre event that takes place each year in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, features a new production of Caryl Churchill’s landmark feminist play from the Thatcher era, Top Girls, and I’m proud to say that I have written the program note for it. The play is a personal favourite of mine – I teach it most years, and I have seen several productions of it in the UK and in Canada. It’s also weirdly still topical: though it was written in 1982, near the beginning of what we might call late-modern neoliberal capitalism in Britain, it resonates even more loudly today because, well, neoliberalism is alive and kicking more of us in the ass than ever before. That’s what my program note is about, in fact: how Churchill’s “ball-busting” post/feminist icon, Marlene, seems as familiar as ever in 2015, and what we can and should learn from her today.

With kind permission of the Festival (and with big thanks to its dramaturg, Joanna Falck, who commissioned my essay) I’m reproducing the program note here; I’ll also do a review of the production (and the opening night dinner and party!) shortly after I see it later this month. Stay tuned.

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Top Girl Power

By Kim Solga

When I began teaching contemporary theatre to university students just over ten years ago, I put Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls on my syllabus even though I was certain that choice would prove to be a disaster. Churchill is one of the most important British playwrights living today, one of the most influential political playwrights in British history, and she is arguably the most significant British woman playwright of any generation; for students of the genre, her work is not to be missed. Top Girls, however, is a tricky play. Written in 1982, during the first wave of Margaret Thatcher’s power and influence, Top Girls is a child of its moment, steeped in Churchill’s strong brand of socialism and littered (like so many of Churchill’s major works of socialist realism, including Serious Money, first performed in 1987 and produced at the Shaw Festival in 2010) with topical references that can easily prove confusing for contemporary audiences. These things make the play a major historical drama, of course – no different from all of the other historical dramas we ask our students to read all the time – but that is not all this play is. It is also a work of ardent, forceful feminism, and in its unflinching representation of women’s lives on both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum it explores the unsavory possibility that feminism could not then, in 1982, and should not now, in 2015, be declared “over”, because too many women are still being left behind.

Top Girls snapshots a few days in the life of Marlene, a high-flying corporate executive who has just been promoted to Managing Director of the employment agency that shares the play’s name. In the famous first act, Marlene presides over a lavish dinner party celebrating her good fortune – a party to which she has invited a variety of notable female figures from history, mythology, art and literature. This set-up makes for one of the funniest, most memorable openings in modern theatre (pay attention to what each woman orders for dinner or dessert!), but as the evening progresses and everyone becomes more and more drunk, fault lines open up. Here, audiences may catch a first glimpse of Churchill’s larger dramaturgical strategy: sharp, dialectical irony. Marlene’s famous guests have been remembered by history for their female exceptionalism – Gret is a warrior; Joan outsmarts the smartest men in Europe; Isabella is an unstoppable adventurer – but it is precisely this specialness that makes them hilariously unsuitable for everything from small talk to political debate with other women. Each guest brings to Marlene’s table a unique and valuable perspective on what it means to live a woman’s life in different places and times, but things finally fall apart because not one of them is able to imagine what it’s really like to be anyone else in the room (least of all their waitress). These remarkable women, it turns out, are all remarkably self-important, and with the possible exception of Gret, the least articulate member of the group, they seem to have absolutely no idea what it means to be part of a female community.

Many of Caryl Churchill’s most celebrated plays were written over the course of the 1970s and 1980s, when she was playwright in residence at the Royal Court Theatre (1974-5) and when she collaborated regularly with the Joint Stock and Monstrous Regiment collectives, the latter an expressly feminist theatre group. Churchill has always openly declared her feminist affinities, but her plays combine feminist concerns for social and political equality with other forms of political commitment, making her work rich, multi-faceted, and broadly resonant for a range of viewers. Recent Churchill plays have explored issues as varied as ecological crisis (The Skriker, 1994; Far Away, 2000), the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (Seven Jewish Children, 2009), and human connectivity (or the lack thereof) in a fully digitized world (Love and Information, 2012). The work she was producing in the hot-house Thatcher years, however, focused primarily on the complicated relationship between gender and economic rights – on how, for example, women’s limited (but much celebrated) social, political, and economic gains through the 1980s were marching in lock-step with the radical shifts remaking postwar Britain in the image of neoliberalism. This is the model of government in which corporate rights and business interests are protected by the state above all, in the belief that private, for-profit firms will “trickle down” their wealth to employees and help achieve social equality more quickly and efficiently than any form of government could do.

We still live, today more than ever, with a bad neoliberal hangover, and the dangers neoliberal ideology holds for women in particular emerge subtly but skillfully in the middle act of Top Girls. The morning after the night before, Marlene arrives at work to a steady stream of women who would like to change their lives by changing their jobs. One by one she cuts them down; her appetite to raise other women up with her newfound power and influence proves much less ravenous than the one that devoured her steak at supper. Churchill skewers Marlene’s shortsightedness in her careful juxtaposition of scenes, a technique she adapts from the mid-century Marxist theatre director Bertolt Brecht, but Marlene is not ultimately an unlikeable character. As a political writer Churchill is far more interested in supporting debate than in scoring points, and by the play’s final act Marlene emerges as a profoundly flawed human being with a strong survival instinct and a reasoned, if not especially inclusive, political perspective. Those of us who sat through first her drunken dinner and then her bad day at work might be surprised to find we’re supporting Marlene as she fights back against her sister Joyce’s bitter clinging to old ways and an ugly martyrdom. And in many ways our support for Marlene, despite not really liking her very much, is Churchill’s point: political action requires us to hang together so that someday we can all reap the benefit, however different our ambitions may be.

I expected a lot of resistance to Top Girls’ feminism from my first students, both men and women, but they proved me wrong. Instead of complaining that Churchill’s politics are dated and polemical, they showed me how, like all good political drama, Top Girls is carefully rooted in a single place and time but is ultimately about so much more than that one place and time. After reading the play they wanted to talk about the word “feminism” and what it meant to them, and for them, in Canada in 2005. They wanted to talk about the claims made by “post-feminism”, and about the several other ways in which the death of feminist politics was being marketed daily to a generation of skeptical young people. They wanted to talk about the ongoing disparity in pay between men and women, especially in the professions, and they wanted to talk about how neither Marlene nor Joyce seems to have won any feminist battle, though neither seems able to offer the other any real empathy over their shared loss.

When my students and I read Top Girls today, ten years on, we talk about Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism project (http://everydaysexism.com), about the play’s politics in light of increased discussion online and in the media around violence against women, and about feminism’s newfound popularity (cynical? sincere?) among certain Hollywood and pop music celebrities. We talk about Angie, Marlene’s young niece; she is left behind, written off, as many of my students, in this economy, fear they may be, too. We talk about the Occupy movement, about Idle No More, and about the various ways in which resistance to social and economic status quos is being spearheaded today by energized, organized young people who refuse to take systemic sexual abuse, racial profiling, or poor economic prospects lying down. These young men and women insist that a better world will be built through strength in numbers and a faith in common bonds; for them, Top Girls is far from historically dated and ideologically irrelevant. It is our contemporary, and its politics are smart, funny, and urgent.

Enjoy the show!

Kim

On writing “properly” – in the academy, and also in life

It’s term paper time: cue panic! As one of my students in History of Performance Theory told me earlier this week: “I am stressed to my core!” Enough said.

This year, term paper time coincides for me with a host of seemingly unconnected events that have me thinking anew about the old saw of a question, “what is good academic writing, anyway?” First, the eminently sensible and always provocative Melonie Fullick, regular contributor to University Affairsweighed in on the politics of academic style and the erroneous argument (much repeated) that all uni profs write indecipherable, useless theory-speak. Then, my friend and colleague (and soon to be guest-post author!) Kat Low told me about the most recent issue of Contemporary Theatre Review, edited by Joanne Tompkins and Maria Delgado, which focuses on the labour, the value, and the challenges of academic editing – an area of our jobs that is so, so important and yet receives far too little credit and attention. Finally, my performance theory students and I read the heartfelt preface to Diana Taylor’s landmark 2003 book, The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas, and spent half an hour “appreciating the text” (more on that later). During that class, I realised what I’d long suspected: that the most creative, most intimate, most personal academic writing is also the stuff that resonates most clearly, sticks with us, influences us, makes the most sense, and means the most to us. So why don’t we write more of it?

I have a personal history with the battle over “proper” academic writing, and the longstanding anxiety that the personal has no place in it. I was fortunate to arrive in graduate school with a superb education in reading and writing: I took my primary and secondary schooling in Alberta, in Western Canada, where I received intensive training in the rules of English and French grammar; I progressed through the International Baccalaureate program during high school, learning not just to love literature but to write creatively (in fact, my IB extended essay was a series of short stories); and I wrote constantly during my first university degree, where I both unlearned some bad, earlier habits and became comfortable with critical theory as well as secondary research in literary criticism. In all of this I am privileged in ways that many of my own students today are not. But this eclectic background has also meant that I rarely feel compelled toward the kind of formal, proper, academic prose that I have long been told I “should” produce. Instead, I prefer to write creatively, even at times performatively; as often as possible I get personal in my academic essays, spelling out what is at stake for me and why. (A recent example I’m quite proud of, about the superb Theatre Replacement show BIOBOXES, is here.)

But I’ve run into some trouble with my urge toward personal, creative, “crossover” writing. That same essay I link to above went through multiple drafts and a number of different peer reviews, some of which were furious, even vindictive; one anonymous reader was enraged I should dare to be so personal in an essay that was not “about me” but about the show, and about the ethnic minority subjects that comprised it. Another accused me of sounding racist – in a moment in the paper when I was trying to come to grips with a difficult, but honest, reaction of my own to the performance I had attended. In both cases, as in many others I could cite from my own and colleagues’ writing histories, I was being challenged, even attacked, for daring to insert my own human fallibility, vulnerability, and culpability into writing for an academic audience.

I know well this challenge: my students remind me of it every time they approach me, tentatively, and ask me if it’s ok for them to use the pronoun “I” in their essays. Of course students learning to write formal essays often need to be trained out of the habit of defaulting to their own personal, anecdotal experiences as “evidence” for their arguments – our worlds are so much bigger than the boundaries of our bodies, and it can be hard, but essential, for young scholars to develop the skill of looking outward with compassion and some objectivity. But I’m a strong proponent of nevertheless returning to ourselves, in order to understand how the things we explore in our writing impact us personally. Which means I always tells my students that yes, they absolutely may use “I” in their papers, and their personal experiences too – just as long as they also consider the perspectives and evidence of others alongside their own. And as a reader of manuscripts for academic journals and presses I take the same approach, lauding colleagues whenever I can for taking the risk of being personal and professional at the same time.

Being personal as well as professional; regarding the two as interlinked: women know this is a constant challenge, burden, and privilege, one in which feminist movements have been invested for decades. There is ample research demonstrating the difficulties women face in academic professions as they attempt to balance personal responsibilities with professional expectations (curious? Look here), and my own experience of trying to be myself – a flawed woman scholar, warts and all – in print has suggested to me that the harsh backlash that accompanies “personal” academic writing can often be gendered. It’s true that outstanding women scholars are among those who have paved the way for many of us interested in creative academic non-fiction (I’ll name my favourite two here – Jill Dolan and Peggy Phelan – though I could name many others), but on balance it’s harder for women – in the world at large, let alone at university! – to express opinions based on personal, gendered experience and be understood to be sharing sincere evidence about what it means to navigate a human life. By way of contrast, I recently peer-reviewed an article for publication by a much-admired male scholar that contained an extensive, arguably excessive, amount of personal detail, some of it quite sexist; in my review I supported the author’s desire to be personal while resisting some of the assumptions the article made, but I privately noted the tone of secure authority with which the author reproduced his experience as proof of a much broader worldview. Time and again, male scholars have regarded their “personal” and the “professional” as coeval; no wonder women who dare to tread this ground, even today, fear being rebuffed!

So what can we do, those of us who value creative academic prose, to further encourage the expansion of “good” academic writing? I’d say we need to listen more carefully to our students! When my performance theory class and I looked together at Diana Taylor’s preface to The Archive and the Repertoire, we tackled the text with an exercise in “appreciating”: I asked them if there were moments in the piece that they had found surprising, or even inspiring; I invited them to highlight those moments and then reflect on them, in writing, for two minutes. (Write about the thing you think for two minutes: this is a favourite free-writing exercise of mine in all of my classes. Conversation is much easier as a result!) Afterward, I asked them if they would describe their chosen passages as “good” academic writing, and why or why not? They reflected for a further minute on paper, and then we shared our thoughts. Their choices were eclectic: from the fanciful to the relatively theoretical, but of a piece they were moved by the combination of a personal tone and a genuinely provocative argument. And they generally agreed that their choices might not be considered “good” writing by the powers that tend to judge these things, but perhaps they really ought to be. Because they had been moved to imagine, to grapple with, even to cherish, Taylor’s points as a result, rather than to throw their books against the wall in frustration. Surely that’s a win for us all.

academic

Write on!

Kim