Just coping (an imperfect how-to guide)

God, what a miserable few weeks it has been! Post-holiday doldrums followed hard by start of term, and then…

1c6ee615a75d476b73340843fd2b974b_20-best-memes-that-show-donald-trump-memes_640-636

I’d offer a trigger warning – but what’s the point?

Well, we know what then. Anyone who cares about progressive, inclusive education, human rights and social justice, LGBT+ rights, the United Nations, environmental protection and food security, and myriad other things that many of us in the Anglosphere have been taking for granted for some time now has, I wager, been feeling rather down since Friday, 20 January. Things have been bumpy, to say the least.

My Facebook feed has been filled with friends and colleagues talking about the many things we can all do right now to help support those left especially vulnerable in the wake of Trump et al. (Marching is good; please also send your money.) I’ve taken much inspiration from them. But I also know that I’ve struggled to keep my own head above water these last few weeks. Not because I am anything like as vulnerable as those most affected by the chaotic death spiral of “executive orders” and gross cabinet appointees swirling steadily toward armageddon in Washington, but because, well… It’s the middle of term and the middle of winter and things kind of already sucked, without the Trump-ocalypse turning up to further fuck my S.A.D. vibe.

This time last year I was in real trouble. I was buried under a heavy administrative load as I, along with one of my colleagues in Theatre Studies, juggled multiple new recruitment initiatives and the planning of a splashy program launch party alongside our teaching labour and research projects. I was finishing an edited book, which meant intellectual work plus the palaver of wrangling colleagues/friends whose contributions were behind schedule, while also fending off my increasingly anxious publisher. And I had made the mistake of jumping head-first into a relationship with someone who looked mighty great on paper, but who turned out, in the fullness of time, to be utterly unsuited to me.

Imagine if I’d known then that Donald Trump was going to win the damn election!

cd8m8bsuyaaidyw

Thanks to my dear friends and my outstanding department chair I made it through February and March 2016, realised I needed a better work-life balance plan, decided to cut out work emails on weekends and over holiday periods, and generally set about paying better attention to my life. I feel a lot better now; in fact, I feel well enough that in the weeks since Mr Trump Went To Washington I’ve been doing a number of things designed, simply, to help me cope with the pool of heavy affect that has settled over my heart.

As it turns out, these are also things that, in normal times, could help those of us who teach and support young people for a living to care for our own emotional wellbeing and sustain our forward momentum.

So I thought I’d share them.

Take a friend out for lunch. My office neighbour, Kate, is a wonderful human being and sometimes I see her when we are both on campus for teaching. But we are busy and she lives in Toronto and we are busy and did I mention how busy we are? So a couple of weeks ago, when I was planning a day of work in the city, I emailed her and asked her if we could have lunch together while I was there. She was totally game – but then her book deadline got in the way. So I said: fear not! I will come to you and I will bring the lunch! We ended up having burgers and deep friend pickles (OMG SO GOOD!!!) and milkshakes and sharing our news in the sunny front window of Rudy’s on College. What bliss.

Have a drink over Skype with someone you love. Most of my friends aren’t in the town where I work; they are in London, England or Toronto or Berlin or San Diego or Brisbane or Halifax or… you get the picture. Academics live a nomadic life, leaving waves of loved ones behind at each career turn. I don’t see enough of my folks, so at the suggestion of my dear pal Jen Harvie I’ve started to make Skype/Facetime dates with friends abroad. Recently I’ve had two, both with chums in Toronto when I couldn’t make it to the city. Sure, we might talk a bit about work, but mostly we gossip about boys (at my instigation; I’m single, straight, and on the internet…). A drink in hand makes it all the more fun.

Go for a long walk, maybe with an animal. My dog Emma provides a built in excuse for long walks; she’s portable, so sometimes I throw her in the car with me and we travel to friends and their trails elsewhere. We had a fantastic, nourishing time walking on the glorious Niagara Escarpment with our friends Susan (human) and Shelby (canine) a couple of weeks ago; you can read more about that adventure here.

Have some sex. Oh yes, I’m quite serious! It’s a gesture of care for your body, a reminder of your beautiful, flawed, awkward, delightful humanity, and a chance to be held, supported by, and connected to another human being for a moment, just when that kind of holding, support and connection are lacking in the wider world. It also totally counts as exercise.

fullsizeoutput_eb1

Emma the dog. You didn’t think I’d share a photo of the sex, did you?

Make a beautiful dinner for yourself, and for someone you love. We are busy professionals and too busy to cook a lot of the time, I know. But cooking a proper meal, as my horrendously failed relationship from last winter reminded me, is the best gift we can give to ourselves and to one another. So book off some time (mark it on your calendar!) and go for it. Make the thing you most love in the world, and share it with somebody. Open wine, if that’s your thing, or open whatever your thing might be.

And then raise your glass to the struggles ahead. Remember that if you embrace the other humans around you, and fortify yourself, you can be ready for anything.

Kim

On outcomes

It’s arguably the most boring part of any course syllabus: outcomes. It’s also one of the most controversial; lots of us, I know, don’t want to be hamstrung by committee-sourced course or program objectives, in part because they seem so broad and vague as to do almost no work whatsoever (“to learn to think critically”; “to learn to write effectively”), and in part because a large part of academic freedom is the freedom to determine the course of a class’s journey on our own. That’s a huge responsibility, but it’s also a core part of what it means to teach at university level. No two classes, even those with the same title, ever look the same. The instructor’s idiosyncrasies, along with the strengths, weaknesses, energy, and willingness of the students, make a university classroom experience what it is.

It sounds idyllic – and at its best it is. But when it’s not at its best, well, it can be terrible. For every professor that shapes a student’s future with an inspiring syllabus and a dynamic personality, there’s a professor who takes the scattershot approach, lectures veering onto wild tangents, no course objectives to be found as tethers to student needs or experience. And then there’s the part where students don’t always know what’s expected of them, even in the best of teaching circumstances, other than the non-negotiable: to show up and look like they’re doing something valuable…

lect2

I know that one of the reasons course objectives are controversial for my peers in the arts and humanities is because the requirement to have them is typically imposed from the top down. Governments tell university administrators, who tell faculty, that we need some centralised measures to ensure we’re on track with broader learning goals. Those goals often feed strategic plans, and those plans lie at the heart of the neoliberal university – where some faculties are typically “winners” (typically not A&H…) while others are not.

Objectives and outcomes, in other words, are not politically neutral things: they form one core part of measurement-based education policy, in which academic labour becomes less and less about engaging in creative research and teaching, and more and more about demonstrating the “impact” of research and teaching in order to justify the “handout” of government dollars for higher education / in the name of what used to be understood as a core public good. UGH.

And yet, from a pedagogical perspective, they make lots of sense.

Objectives and outcomes keep university teachers accountable: not (just) to administrators or governments, but more importantly to our students and ourselves. For those of us lucky enough to be empowered to make our own objectives and outcomes, course by course and program by program, they are exceptional planning tools. We get to think deeply about what it is we actually want our students to do in our courses, and we get to then think about how different lessons and assignments might link up with these stated plans.

scrappy-quilts2

I’ve made a point of foregrounding outcomes (what I hope students will end up with) as well as objectives (things we’ll do together to try to get to the outcomes) on my course outlines for a few years now. I learned their value – as I learned the value of a number of things I previously believed both hegemonic and overly centralising – while teaching in England, where the expectation that everyone will offer clear course outcomes has been moot for some time now. I take students through my outcomes and objectives at the start of every term; I highlight a crucial caveat – you can only expect to attain these outcomes if you “take our course seriously” – and then I invite them each to create an outcome (what I call a learning goal) for themselves and add it to their copy of the syllabus.

I try to keep my outcomes front of mind as I plan assignments and even class lessons. But I have to be honest; once I’ve ticked the box of making my lists of objectives and outcomes I often pat myself on the back, and then sort of conveniently forget about them. I trust that I’ve got such good and clear intentions for each class, of course my assignments and lectures and discussion plans will feed constantly into them.

But do they?

Last December I decided to test my capacity to teach to my own stated goals by asking the students in my fall term performance studies class to feed back on how well they felt they had met the course’s outcomes. I did not do this in a survey, or in class; rather, I created a final exam question about it.

That meant the students were required to think fulsomely about both the class’s outcomes and the means by which we tried to get there; they were also asked to consider both when we had and when we had not reached outcomes, and to reflect critically on outcomes-based learning as a process through which they, as students, had traveled.

Here’s the question I posed:

At the outset of our course, Kim offered the following potential “outcomes”:

Students who take our course seriously and commit to our shared labour can expect:

  • To be introduced to a host of contemporary performance theories and practices;
  • To develop the capacity to critique a piece of non-scripted, non-traditional performance;
  • To learn the value and power of collaborative teaching and learning;
  • To practice critical thinking using written text, video, and audio tools;
  • To continue to improve their research, writing, and editing skills;
  • To practice, develop, and improve public presentation skills;
  • To experiment with independent and/or team performance-making;
  • To take some risks, make some mistakes, and have fun!

Did you achieve them? Some more than others? Did you not achieve some? Using “thick description” of key moments in or outside class, talk about how a selection of these outcomes contributed, or not, to your learning in TS2202. You need not talk about all outcomes. You need not be positive about all outcomes! Nuanced, honest self-analysis is welcome.

Seven out of 20 students (a statistically impressive 35%) chose to write on this question. Grades ranged from 36/50 (for a thoughtful reply, but one missing a clear structure or detailed descriptions of learning events), to 48/50 (for a reply that was well structured and well detailed, and full of careful self-reflection). Students were not judged on whether or not they deemed outcomes to have been met or not; I was far more interested in hearing them talk about how, and why, either result may have obtained.

Several students talked about the value of learning about non-traditional forms of performance; one made the point of saying his directorial practice was shifting as a result of our class’s exposure to work far outside the Western dramatic canon. Another noted that non-traditional performance forms required us to explore non-traditional ways of talking about those things, and then commented on the fear, but also the excitement, of engaging in that kind of exploration.

Most students mentioned the power of taking risks and making mistakes (likely because I mess up a lot in class, and never hide it, my students tend to get comfortable with error). One student described a moment early in the semester when they had shared an intimate, taboo piece of personal history, and the positive impact they experienced when I did not judge, but turned that sharing into a teachable moment. Another talked about learning that their mistakes in class could all be “manageable” (probably the most important outcome any university student can take from any class, anywhere!). Still another offered this helpful reflection on the first day of class:

On the very first day when we were asked to act out the syllabus I made a decision to let myself take risks and be silly. I decided to really try to turn off that voice that says ‘oh don’t do that, you’ll look foolish’. … I went away with that quiet voice telling me I was ridiculous but I didn’t listen, and I looked forward to every class that followed.

In general each student selected a range of outcomes to talk about, with some outcomes getting more attention than others across all seven papers. Every single student, however, wrote about the “collaborative teaching and learning” outcome. Some expressed continued anxiety about group work, but also took the time, in the spirit of the question, to think about the positive (if still difficult) experiences of shared labour they’d had – learning to account for others’ perspectives and personalities, learning to deal with clashes of opinion, and learning that sharing and negotiating ideas does not require consensus or group-think to emerge.

My favourite reflection on our collaborative classroom practice was this one:

What was very evident throughout the year was the collaboration between teacher and students. I am currently taking an educational psychology course, and there were a lot of tasks we did throughout the course that are akin to optimal teaching. For example, the first day of class we partnered up to discuss any questions we may have had about the syllabus, known as reciprocal questioning, which encourages a deeper understanding of the material being discussed. This goes for many of our group interactions throughout the semester. You also relinquished some control in the course content by allowing us, in groups, to pick some of the readings. This elevated sense of control, or human agency, in our learning increases motivation and self-efficacy.

The student who wrote this response did something very special for me. They connected my classroom labour to the prevailing pedagogical research, and noted how the collaborative environment I create for my students is geared directly toward an outcome I’ve not yet identified: providing students with the opportunity to build agency, and take ownership over a lifelong learning process. I will be adding that outcome to future syllabi, you can be sure – and crediting the student (whose name I know) in the process.

I’ll be putting an outcomes question on the final exam again; I learned a great deal from it about where my students see the connections between my stated goals and our classroom labours. These connections are sometimes where and what I expect them to be, and sometimes not – which means these answers offer me very useful fodder for future classroom planning. I think I’ll tweak the question next time around, though, to encourage balance: I’d like to hear a) where students met an outcome, and how; b) where they did not, and why; and c) what else we might have done to meet an important potential outcome, stated or not.

Now, I’d love to hear about YOUR outcome labours. What do you do to set objectives and outcomes effectively? How do you test their efficacy? Please leave comments! I also want to thank all of the students in Theatre Studies 2202F (2016) for inspiring me to think more, and more carefully, about how I remain accountable to them, to their peers, and to myself in our shared learning environments.

Kim

What could the future academic work force look like?

My last post (the final of my reflections on mobility and access over the holiday period) talked about the issue of feeling “trapped” in a faculty job, and wondered if there were ways university labourers could work together to ease what is an all-too-common, but often invisible, experience. As often happens to me – I think I may be a serendipity magnet of some kind – the virtual ink was barely dry on that post when I got a notification from the awesome Tomorrow’s Professor listserv about a new book that considers this very issue, as it asks questions about what the future of the academic work force might look like.

istock_000003042313xsmall

The book is called Envisioning the Faculty for the 21st Century: Moving to a Mission-Oriented and Learner-Centered Model (Rutgers UP, 2016 – get it here), by Adrianna Kezar and Daniel Maxey.  It extends work that Kezar has been doing for some time, as the founder of the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success at the University of Southern California (though she now works at Santa Clara University). Based in part on a comprehensive survey of more than 1500 participants, ranging from non-tenured and tenured faculty to deans, administrators, and members of professional societies, the book explores ways to make faculty jobs more broadly equitable by reimagining the standard research-teaching-service, tenure-stream model.

I’ve not read the book yet, and thus cannot make any comments or judgements about its content here; I did, however, want to draw our collective attention to it because it presses on an urgent need.

Chances are we’re never going to be able to go back to the 20th century university model of extensive, full-time, tenured jobs supported by just a very small number of part-timers, and many of us lament this witheringly whenever we get the chance. Indeed, in my previous post I did too, noting that the disappearance of tenure-track jobs in my field is one of the reasons why the feeling of entrapment folds around me and my colleagues, as we desperately search for that ever-more elusive gig and, when we find it, cling to it with all our might.

Kezar and Maxey eschew the lament and take a different tack: they use the vanishing-tenure-stream problem as an opportunity to ask if that model is, in fact, one we want to return to. They don’t suggest moving away from tenure altogether, but they do put pressure on our knee-jerk assumption that tenure is the salve for every academic sore.

In the terrific online resource Inside Higher Ed, Colleen Flaherty writes a helpful, comprehensive review of Kezar and Maxey’s book. Here’s a chunk of that review, to give you a sense of the book’s investments and conclusions:

They begin Envisioning the Faculty by undressing the myth, held by some, that the “traditional” faculty model – in which the vast majority of faculty members are all considered for tenure, based on their teaching, research and service records – isn’t that traditional at all. It’s largely a 20th-century phenomenon, they say, and should be seen as one chapter of professorial history.

They don’t condone what they call the recent “devolution” of the faculty role, to a predominantly part-time workforce, however, and spend a significant time reviewing the literature suggesting it’s bad for students, instructors and institutions alike. Some examples: poor working conditions for adjunct faculty members (no job security, relatively low pay and lots of instructor turnover) have been shown to have a negative impact on student retention, transfer from two-year to four-year institutions and graduation or completion rates. That’s regardless of how skilled or committed adjuncts are.

Yet there’s room for improvement in the tenure-track model, as well, Kezar and Maxey argue, or at least what’s become of it. A disproportionate emphasis on conducting research undervalues teaching – including innovations in teaching – especially in the pretenure period, along with service, the book says. There’s also little room for flexibility in hiring to teach in new fields or account for “market fluctuations” – a common argument among administrators against more restrictive tenure-track hiring. Plus, tenure-track professors, now a minority across academe, feel the burden of service and shared governance previously spread across a great proportion of the faculty.

Flaherty also notes that Kezar and Maxey’s survey research indicates the importance of building common ground – what I called in my last post ally-ship – among university labourers of all kinds, which ultimately means thinking less autonomously and more collaboratively as scholars:

“There was almost uniform agreement among all stakeholders in our survey on all the items related to ensuring that faculty members have academic freedom, equitable compensation and access to benefits, involvement in shared governance, access to resources needed to perform their role, opportunities for promotion, clearly defined expectations and evaluation criteria, clear notification of contract renewal as well as grievance processes, and continuous professional development,” the book says.

Yet “this level of support is at odds with hiring practices over the past 20 years that have moved away from the professionalization of faculty.”

The book recommends meaningful discussions as to why beliefs about faculty professionalism don’t meet employment practices, but flags faculty “autonomy” as something that merits rethinking.Faculty as professionals in today’s environment may need to emphasize working collectively toward community, institutional or departmental goals, since it is unclear how well autonomy has served the academic enterprise as a whole.”

(My emphasis)

Questions about autonomy vs community in the academy are close to my heart. My commitment to collaborative academic labour is the main reason I went up for my recent promotion on the back of my substantial editorial work, rather than waiting until I’d written another solo-authored book.

The 20th century professorial model has encouraged us to fetishise the Oxbridgian stereotype of the dotty, genius prof in gowns in his/her (mostly his) plush office, beavering away alone while occasionally admitting students for sage wisdom and port. Obviously most of us don’t live the stereotype – it’s barely possible even for the Oxbridge sort now! – but we all know it, and it’s a compelling fantasy.

bf0cb36a599e601b02201b810d4a419c

Anthony Hopkins as CS Lewis in Shadowlands. OF COURSE I wanted to be a prof because of him!

The hall where my office is located is a series of mostly shut office doors; I’m used to seeing a bare handful of my colleagues when I’m at work. When we get together at faculty meetings and retreats we’re usually crabby about it and think it’s a waste of time. That, I suspect, is because we don’t really see ourselves as a community; we imagine we work alone, and our employment structure (40% research, which usually means stuff we read and write about alone; 40% teaching, which involves students but not other colleagues, typically; 20% service, which we all grouse about and try to get out of) reinforces this belief inherently.

The problem – as Kezar and Maxey note – is that this very structure, not just of university employment, but of our beliefs about that employment, contribute to the inequity that surrounds contemporary university faculty as the tenure-stream slips away. When the most privileged tenured faculty hunker down, look after ourselves and our students behind closed doors, and minimise service duties as much as possible to maximise research time, we pass the buck to others. And those others are usually rather less fortunate than we are: mid-career faculty (often women, or minority-identified men) who have been earmarked as “reliable” and are now stuck in work-horse mode; junior faculty looking for promotion to tenure; part time faculty looking for a tenure-stream job; graduate students already underpaid and scared for the future.

blog-team-building

Instead of buck-passing, could we team up, maybe even re-imagine academic privilege together? I’m looking forward to reading this book and thinking more about how systemic, faculty-led change at our universities might allow us to work better, together, and live more freely and happily, too. I’ll do a full review of it in due course.

Kim

On the freedom to move, and the freedom to be, part the last

(Over the holiday period I’ve done a series of posts about mobility, access, and equality. Read the previous posts here, here, and here.)

Over the Christmas break I got promoted. What a terrific gift at a challenging time of year. The promotion was especially welcome news because I wasn’t convinced, until the very last letter was signed, that it was actually going to happen; I was going up on the strength of a lot of edited work and teaching labour, not on the back of the coveted “second monograph” that is the “gold standard” in most academic departments like mine. So I’m genuinely chuffed to report that the external examiners, the internal committee, my Chair, Dean, and Provost all decided the work I’d done was in every respect worthy of promotion. A happy new precedent at my school, I hope.

This promotion doesn’t come with lots of added frills, mostly just bragging rights: I’ve got to the top of the academic food chain. But it has also come at an opportune time, just as I’ve been thinking about how and when and where we move, what privileges many of us can and cannot access – and how sometimes those who seem most mobile are in fact most profoundly stuck.

Academics have weird jobs. Those of us in tenured or tenure-stream positions get to work from home a lot of the time, and are often jetting around to conferences and paper-giving events around the world. I’ve piggy-backed most of my holidays for the last decade on top of cool conferences in Asia, Europe, and the states, airfare paid by my employer or an external granting agency. I’m writing this post in my pyjamas.

bc4187aa33ab6a8148e99c3a52f73bea

We are, in other words, gifted with flexible time, the means to travel, and an awful lot of cultural power besides.

But that’s hardly the whole story. Most importantly, and worth mentioning straight away, is that those of us in cozy jammies are truly the gifted few: a shocking number of our colleagues work contract positions without benefits or job guarantees. They go to those same conferences, too, but on their own dime most of the time and in desperate need to land a more permanent job. They struggle under the heaviest teaching loads at most universities, and sometimes under heavy admin loads too. They work to survive, but appear outwardly to be mobile professionals. And that’s the way universities like it: the less attention drawn to the actual working conditions of sessionals, the better for a school’s bottom line.

(This is a subject that has been much written about, and my own experience of it is as an outsider, so I’m not going to focus on it here. But I want to direct attention its way, and for those interested in reading more I recommend the terrific work of Melonie Fullick in University Affairs.)

So being among the lucky, tenured few brings plenty of certainty, and stability, to be sure. And I am so, so grateful for both. But sometimes certainty and stability hide other problems – and I know these problems are relative, of course, but they are also real. I talked in my first mobility post, back in December, about the value of feeling placed in the world: knowing where we are rooted allows us to fly free. Those without roots – those who must migrate in order to survive – suffer the hard strains of place’s very lack. But being in place can also mean being profoundly stuck, and more than a few academics I know feel stuck, trapped in fact, in the very jobs that guarantee their livelihoods.

There are a few reasons for this.

The first is scarcity: tenured jobs, particularly in the Arts and Humanities where I teach, are fewer and further between than ever. Partly this is cyclical, but it’s primarily a side effect of the rise of neoliberal university culture, which depends increasingly on flex-time labour (sessional contractors without benefits), promotes STEM fields over liberal arts ones, and encourages instructors to teach toward future employment, rather than toward broad and informed citizenship.

(My own faculty is in big trouble these days, as are many of its kin across North America, because numbers in our classes are dropping – we tend to offer more citizenship training than job training, which seems nebulous and irrelevant to lots of people who just want to get good jobs/their kids to get good jobs. However, because our budget remains tied in large part to the number of bodies in our seats, fewer students wanting to learn about art, literature, and foreign languages right now means less money for all of those things in the future – especially for replacement faculty for those retiring today.)

In other words: when you get offered a tenure-stream academic job, dammit, you cling to it. Doesn’t matter where the hell it is.

postdocalypse

And there’s reason number two: universities are not exactly like engineering firms. Even if Richard Florida rates both profs and engineers as high-impact “creatives“, the fact is that as an academic you don’t generally get to pick the city you want to live in, or even the province or state. Even massive global cities boast at most half a dozen major schools, not all of which will have departments in your field (and even fewer of which will have hires coming up anytime soon). Then there’s the question of whether you could even afford to live in London/New York/Tokyo on a professor’s salary! (Answer: barely.) On the flip side, many universities, including very good ones, are in deep-space places: far from major cities, in towns where those not associated with the university resent it, or in a region that doesn’t share your political values in any way. If you realize one day, as a colleague of mine confessed to me recently, that you literally cannot bear the place your school is located as a home for your family one more minute, you’ve got two choices: massive upheaval, assuming you can find a comparable job elsewhere (big assumption), or leave the academy altogether and start over from scratch.

That brings me to reason number three academics get stuck: workload creep. Lots of us are in jobs where the day-to-day is so onerous it eats our research time in huge mouthfuls. Can’t publish the book/major article/make the major breakthrough at the lab, can’t move; it’s as simple as that, no matter how good an undergrad chair you are/how high your teaching scores tend to be. When I look at my permanent, tenured colleagues who struggle under 3- or 4-class per term teaching loads, plus administrative duties, I am genuinely embarrassed by how much time I have to write, edit, and publish. Yes, of course, I just got promoted to full professor at a relatively young age because I am totally gifted and amazing! But, no, wait: I ACTUALLY got promoted because I have made a series of life choices that mean I work in a department where I teach a 2-2 load, in classes with maybe 25 students each in them, and rarely have to do onerous admin without lots of help.

Now, about those choices… there have been some serious trade-offs. Some of them sit very heavy on me.

Some of them have broken my heart. But –

I know, I know: talk to the hand. We’re damn lucky. We have good jobs. We have salaries, benefits, and can’t be fired at the whim of our employers because we are protected by strong unions (often) and academic freedom (more often). Being a prof is fucking cushy, I won’t deny it. But it doesn’t mean we’re all just delighted, bouncing through the heather. Most of us are, in fact, depressed. Exhausted. Some of us are commuting huge distances on alternate weekends. Unsure if we’ll ever get out from underneath the job’s grind. Afraid to leave because where could we go? If we could actually get another offer at a better place, could our partners find work too? Would the kids mind moving thousands of kilometres away? And what if it was just more of the same?

While I was writing this post and fighting with myself to get the tone right, so I didn’t sound like an overprivileged douchebag whining about bullshit problems, I took a break to eat some dinner and watch Meryl Streep accept the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Golden Globes. It’s a riveting, heartfelt performance of hurt and despair at what might be the highlight moment of her career, and I really recommend a watch, if you’ve not seen it. Here it is:

Meryl reminded her audiences of a few important things in this speech. First, that Hollywood actors, and the Hollywood foreign press – despite being two of the most outrageously privileged groups on earth – are also currently among the most “vilified segments” in America (“Hollywood. Foreigners. And the press”). Why? Because it is their job, actors and journalists alike, to inhabit difference, call out falsehood, and speak truth to power – even when it places them at risk. She reminded everyone listening in the auditorium of the weight of responsibility their privilege brings, the responsibility to model empathy and compassion, and to refuse to stand for bullying, belittling, humiliating acts perpetrated by those with power. When we are secure, are em-placed, we speak from a built-in podium; let’s speak loudly, and clearly.

But let’s not underestimate our own vulnerability, either; that’s a lie that not only does our own selves a disservice, but also reduces the potential for ally-ship with others. And this is where those of us in secure academic jobs should learn from Meryl’s words: to be conscious of, and grateful for, our own freedom and mobility, but not to take it for granted, and never, ever to assume its normativity. It’s likely that more than a few of our colleagues, even just down the hall, are feeling more precarious than we know; if we overstate and universalise the privileges of this fortunate job, we risk erasing the details of struggles barely recognised.

There are lots of ways that tenured faculty can be allies with contract faculty, graduate students, and others in the university precariat, and we should embrace them all. But we must also be each other’s allies, and make space to talk honestly about that all-too-common feeling of entrapment that lurks around us. How might we alleviate it? I bet there are dozens of ideas waiting to be hatched, if we’d just take this problem seriously as shared, personal, and an impediment to our collective strength as teachers, scholars, and community leaders.

Job shares? Advocating for better regional transit on behalf of university populations? Proactive planning for commuting profs, including on-campus housing, centralised carpooling, air or rail discounts? New models for spousal hiring and support? These are off the top of my head, but I bet there are more, and better, examples floating around. I’d love to hear about them – please share!

Kim

 

 

 

On the freedom to move, and the freedom to be, part 3

It’s Saturday 10 December, a bit dreary and rainy but the holiday trimmings keep things light. My ticket says 11am, so at 10:45 I emerge from the Regent’s Canal exit at King’s Cross underground station and turn right. There’s a queue forming outside the makeshift theatre space, but I head straight for the ramp, flash my ticket, and am ushered through into a warm, tight lobby. Then, huddled together in the buzz and the heat, we wait: me and several dozen other lucky folks who have ponied up £120 for the Donmar Warehouse’s Shakespeare Trilogy, created and directed by Phyllida Lloyd and her incredible cast in association with Clean Break.

fullsizeoutput_e03

As you can imagine, we are mostly the expected demographic: in early 30s and 20s (notably, thanks in part to the Donmar’s “Front Row” access scheme), plus a few middle aged and older; not exclusively but by far majority white. We look like a night at the Almeida or the Young Vic across town; we look, mostly, like London’s privileged theatre-going class.

But today, for this one time only, I just don’t care.

Because we are here to see a monumental, game-changing piece of work. We are here to see an astonishingly talented group of women – women ONLY, and largely women of colour – perform three Shakespeare plays not associated, typically, with women’s roles: Julius Caesar, Henry IV, and The Tempest. These women will play all the parts, and they will play them so well that at the end of the day I will declare on social media, with all the force of twenty years of Shakespeare-going around the world behind me, that this is some of the finest, if not THE finest, Shakespeare I’ve ever witnessed.

2544

Sheila Atim and Jade Anouka in Henry IV.

What follows is a post about mobility, accessibility, and the public stage. About what it takes to put women’s stories on view for a public audience, and why it shouldn’t have to take so very much at all – because women’s stories are, in fact, for everyone.

Women’s stories are STORY, full stop.

But this is also a post about mobility, accessibility, and those who live on our margins, because the Shakespeare Trilogy doesn’t just put women’s stories, through the words of William Shakespeare, on the stage.

It puts incarcerated women’s stories on stage, and it has given incarcerated women the freedom to explore their stories in kind.

It was early 2012 (a full year before Orange is the New Black made prison women hip, y’all) when Phyllida Lloyd joined forces with Josie Rourke, Artistic Director of the Donmar Warehouse, and Executive Producer Kate Pakenham to conceive an all-female Julius Caesar.

(Let’s stop for a minute and mark this, because it will be important: Josie [below right] and Kate run one of London’s premier West-End venues. Phyllida [below left] is one of the UK’s leading directors. GIRLS TO THE FRONT, as my friend the film critic Sophie Mayer says.)

Why just girls on stage? Lloyd notes in an interview reprinted in the ST program that “Women have not been well served by [Britain’s] devotion to the Bard,” for two reasons. First, as she, Charlotte Higgins, Elizabeth Freestone, and other researchers (including me, in a forthcoming article) have argued recently, Shakespeare’s plays were written for a company of men, to be played primarily for male audiences (as well as for a Queen who styled herself a virgin). Of course most of the good roles were going to be male!

What does this mean for us, now? Simple: when we universalise Shakespeare’s power, authority, and aesthetic prowess, we also universalise what was in fact an entirely context- and history-dependent accident: an imbalance of male versus female (or gender-neutral) roles.

And because we lionise Shakespeare as the original poet-genius, we also call that shit not just normal, but ideal.

Second, and related, is this reason: with the canonisation of William “The Bard” Shakespeare – and the attendant cultural and economic power enjoyed by the Shaks industry worldwide – has come a firm, entrenched tradition of male “ownership” over this figure. Shakespeare’s roles are largely for men; the best ones (Lear, Hamlet, Prospero, Hal) are rite-of-passage work for male actors; tradition holds that men more typically direct His work. (And direct it better, somehow. How do we know? Well, we just… do. Don’t believe me? Tonic Theatre’s Advance project will open your eyes. Read more here.)

All this means that a situation like the Shakespeare Trilogy – in which Josie and Kate ask Phyllida to direct a major play, then another, then a third, with women in all the roles – is an utter, stunning rarity. Much more common, even in these post-feminist days, is a situation like the one in place at the Royal Shakespeare Company: powerful A.D. Greg Doran welcomed Erica Whyman as “deputy” A.D. in 2013; she took over responsibility for new work, equality and diversity files, and the redevelopment of the RSC’s famed small venue, The Other Place. Wonderful stuff, to be sure – Whyman is an incredibly talented visionary! – but again, let’s stop and mark the distinction, because it’s important. Doran is the current “owner” of the RSC’s brand; nobody questions that. Whyman’s role is one of helpmeet: she makes the RSC a safe place to play if you are not white and male.

the-high-cost-of-the-gender-imbalance-in-finance-online-forum

This is the context in which – and these are the reasons why – the partnership among Lloyd, Rourke, and Pakenham was so ground-breaking in 2012, and why it continued enthusiastically with 2014’s Henry IV and 2016’s The Tempest. And the need for women’s voices and experiences in all aspects of making Shakespeare now on stage felt obvious to me the moment I stepped into the Donmar’s King’s Cross space and witnessed the energy, the fire, the athleticism, and the power of the women-identified actors making this work.

Whole, amazing, brave new worlds emerge when women’s contemporary bodies inhabit the characters written originally for men 400 years ago.

And, to make matters even more electric: in this case, the worlds that emerged were driven by the powerful imaginations of women who are, literally, bounded in a nutshell.

5304

Anouka and the cast of The Tempest. I have a little crush on Jade; hence all the photos!

***

While I’m waiting in the lobby for the first show to begin, I read all the materials on the cast wall adjacent to the seating area. Here, I grab a handful of postcards with photos of the actors, in-role as their prison characters, and turn them over. The cards tell me this:

fullsizeoutput_e67

The Shakespeare Trilogy is meta-theatre at its finest. It is theatre about the process of putting Shakespeare on stage. It is about what making theatre can help us to understand about ourselves, about our relationship to the cultures that shape us, and about our potential future worlds.

In conjunction with Lloyd, each other, and the women prisoners with whom they worked throughout their creative process, each of the professional actors in the ST cast created a female prison character through which to shape her interpretation of the Shakespearean characters she portrays in each of the plays in the trilogy.

(Got that? It goes: actor -> prison character -> multiple Shaks characters. Actors play the prison characters, which are then layered onto the Shaks characters. It’s tricky to do and tricky to watch. It’s an utterly marvellous challenge for audiences, though.)

We in the audience spy those prison characters briefly at the top and bottom of each show, as well as in moments through the middles when the Shakespeare gets interrupted by guards, when momentary violence between the prison characters breaks out, or when moments of tenderness, fear, and love amongst the imprisoned women bubble to the surface, driven by the emotions the verse brings.

These shows, in other words, aren’t just Shakespeare; they are a representation of Shakespeare played by and for women on the inside, for their own pleasure, learning, sustenance, and strength. We are visitors at their drama club, watching them do something important for themselves. We are asked to bear witness to them as they shape their stories through Shakespeare’s language, and as they give their own bodies, hearts, and minds fresh life thereby.

The ST was created in partnership with two organisations (Clean Break, linked above, and the York St John University Prison Partnership Project) that bring a form of drama therapy to incarcerated women in an effort to help them access their power and potential and build new worlds to walk into when they get out of jail. But ST itself is not drama therapy; it is, rather, a kind of immersive event that invites those of us privileged – with money, time, cultural capital and bodily freedom – to see for once properly inside the privilege that has accrued to the works of William Shakespeare, and to recognise one way in which that privilege might be more equitably distributed.

Who owns this legendary – no, this mythical – guy’s stuff? Who really benefits from its continual re-hashing, from our world-without-end need to see YET ANOTHER Romeo and Juliet? Who else might benefit? What would it take to make that actually happen?

henryiv_donmar_oct14

Harriet Walter, in a promotional shot for Henry IV.

I don’t have room here to review these amazing three shows in full, but I do want to offer three small snapshots of my experience over the course of the 12 hours I gave over to Lloyd, her creative partners, her actors, and the imprisoned women whose spirits they held throughout the day. These are simply recordings of three moments that made meaning for me as a woman invested in theatre equality, as a scholar invested in women making Shakespeare for the public stage, and as a human being trying to be hopeful in a moment of bleak uncertainty. They are three moments that especially moved me.

Moment number one happened at the end of Julius Caesar. With but lines to go, the performers playing ushers/guards brought the prison characters’ show to a close: lights up, everyone back to their bunks. Harriet Walter, as Brutus, was positioned on the stairs behind me and to the left. (The ST played in an arena-style, in-the-round space that called up the spirit of a chilly institutional gymnasium.)

fullsizeoutput_e6a

“IT ISN’T FAIR!” she called out, visibly upset. For a moment I wasn’t sure who was speaking: Brutus, her prison character Hannah (pictured above), or Harriet herself. “YOU NEVER LET US FINISH,” she continued, through tears. This world, she cried out, has gone all to shit. Everything is a mess. So there, then: you finish it. YOU FINISH IT.

She ran down the steps and off stage; her departure left me with the strong sense of a call to arms. This wasn’t work made for me, for us in the hard plastic chairs banked around the room; this wasn’t even just work made for the women who inspired it. It was work made in the hope of a fresh future for all who need one, and if it could not be permitted to end – if it was always, cruelly, brutally stopped before its promised ending by those who either didn’t appreciate its value, or (worse) saw the value and aimed to withhold it – then that future might not ever begin.

I left for lunch feeling gutted.

Moment number two appeared two thirds of the way through Henry IV, by far my favourite performance of a Shakespeare play of all time. (OF. ALL. TIME.) Anchored by the bewitchingly mischievous Clare Dunne as Hal (below left), Sophie Stanton’s rough-but-ready, working class Falstaff (below right), and the svelt, gorgeous, forthrightly confident Jade Anouka as Hotspur, this piece exuded athleticism, confidence, and harsh masculinity – all this with no biological males in site. (Apart from being stunning ensemble theatre and simply outstanding, clear-as-a-bell verse speaking, Lloyd’s Henry IV is a textbook example of gender as social performance rather than biological “fact”.)

But it was when Anouka and Dunne faced off – the prized fight of this play, between the balsy princes-in-arms – that the sheer power and beauty of these strong, able, talented women’s bodies shone through their characters, through the text, and landed on stage before us. This was the moment I recognized that I’d been so engrossed in watching and listening I’d not noticed the time pass, and that I really, really did not want this performance to end. I’ve honestly never before felt that at the theatre – and certainly not at a performance of Shakespeare’s work. (Usually by the end of Act Four I’m ready for it to be over, already. Not this time.)

henry-iv-010

Dunne and Anouka take each other down. Electrifying.

Moment number three marked Lloyd’s ending. The Tempest is done, and only Walter as Hannah – who is based on the life of Judith Clark, an American serving 75 years for a crime committed during a political action – is left on stage. She’s in her bunk. She’s reading. She gets a visit from one of the other prison women: someone who’s been inside but is now free, and has come back to make sure Hannah is loved, seen, cared for (and has fresh reading material!). That’s when lights come gently up on all of the staircases around the space; the women’s prison characters appear in every nook and cranny. They are out now; Hannah, with a lifetime on the clock, will only ever see friends come in order to go. But they are here now, maybe in person or maybe in Prospero’s dream, to send their love and memories and best wishes. To say they are doing fine, haven’t forgotten the lessons they shared making theatre together.

I know for sure this sounds cheesy – and I know colleagues who thought the entire prison frame unnecessary to the work of making amazing feminist Shakespeare. But I was beyond moved by this final action, and by the power of community – women’s community, brave and strong – that it called into the otherwise barren space.

I remembered Hannah’s words at the end of Julius Caesar: YOU FINISH IT, THEN. Or maybe – hey, maybe – you could join us, support us, honour what we’re building rather than strike it down before its ending. Help us get to a new beginning. Together, I bet we could do it.

No community is perfect – that’s obvious multiple times throughout the ST plays, as the prison characters fight or risk unraveling. But together is the only way we make things better, the only way we move forward, move safely on – and this theatre is stark, gorgeous evidence of just that. Lloyd, Rourke, Anouka, Dunne, Walter… and the many, many, many women on and off stage who made these three incredible shows reveal what power Shakespeare holds for women able to seize it – and for the women to whom they are able to grant access to that power in turn.

Thus, for me, is the Shakespeare Trilogy finally work about access – access to cultural power, political power, the power of learning, the power of creative making, the power of public performance. This access is grabbed hard and with fire by those whose mobility had been limited by Patriarchy’s Shakespeare, but who won’t stand for barriers anymore.

Long may they hold open the doors.

Kim

PS: I know this has been a very long post. Thank you for reading!