Sharing our resources better: more thoughts on what to bring with us post-COVID (#ACsurvivalguide)

Kelsey,

In your last post you brought up the question of mentorship in the Zoom era, and what aspects of that often-frustrating but occasionally remarkable experience we need to port with us when the Tardis door opens post-COVID.

This week I want to think about another aspect of COVID teaching that has lessons to offer the After Times: sharing our resources more wisely.

It takes imagination, and generosity, to make a thriving (theatre) ecology.

My inspiration for this one comes from the large experiential learning class I’m currently teaching at Western, “Toronto: Culture and Performance”. (NB: I stole this title and concept shamelessly from my dear colleagues at Queen Mary University of London, Department of Drama, which runs a course of the [nearly] same name focused on London’s theatre ecology. What can I say? Winning formula.)

The Before Times: spectators experience “Death of the Sun” at Toronto’s Nuit Blanche, 2016

In the Before Times, TOCAP (as I call it) took 40+ students from three difference academic programs, plus me and a TA, to watch live shows in Toronto, in Stratford, ON (at the Stratford Festival), and even in Little London, ON from time to time (comparison shopping across ecologies is very informative stuff). The course is very popular, but expensive to run: student fees (which we cap at CAD$150, or the equivalent of a textbook-heavy course in any other field) cover about 50% of the cost of buses, theatre tickets, and guest speakers, while the rest is made up from donations from the academic programs whose students join the class, plus funds from a pot within our shared faculty to which I need to reapply every year (a bit sheepishly).

The costs have proven worth it, though: we have seen outstanding work by a wide and diverse range of artists on the cutting edge of what our friend and colleague Ric Knowles calls “the intercultural city,” and students are given opportunities to think and work creatively, based on their own intellectual, cultural, and career interests, in a range of different assignments.

(Shows we’ve been privileged to see live in years past! Evalyn Parry and Anna Chatterton in Gertrude and Alice at Buddies in Bad Times; the cast of Come From Away in their Toronto home; the banner for Hong Kong Exile’s amazing animated show No Foreigners.)

When COVID hit, in March 2020, the next round of TOCAP was scheduled for autumn. We quickly shifted things around to move it to winter term, hoping against hope that theatres would be “open” again come January. Of course, that did not happen.

What did I do? First, I took stock of what we had. In addition to a range of emerging online resources from Toronto theatre companies, most of which were being offered for free or PWYC to all comers, I also had 40+ students x $150 to spend. (This money is centrally collected by our registrar’s office, so was already in the bank.)

I then got to work exploring what was happening in the Toronto theatre ecology, online edition, and which companies our funds could best support as they navigated this incredibly precarious time.

I discovered: groups experimenting with online-hybrid formats that are likely to push the definition of theatre forward in the coming years (Factory Theatre, Nightwood Theatre, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre); groups that had archival resources to share and an eagerness to reflect on them with us (The Theatre Centre); and groups whose work on decolonizing theatre in Tkaronto (also known in English as Toronto) was ongoing, though increasingly through exhaustion, given the working conditions demanded by COVID (Manidoons Theatre Collective, Native Earth Performing Arts, and more).

Acts of Faith, by David Yee and starring Natasha Mumba, was a huge hit with the class. Factory Theatre commissioned and produced it as a to-camera, for-livestream hybrid work that was at turns deeply intimate and seriously creepy.

I reached out to these companies; I noted that we had $1000 per theatre to spend, and that we’d be happy to spread this money out across screening fees, speakers’ fees for artists to join us in class, and more.

“Into Mother’s Womb” by Natalie Sappier illustrates Aria Evans’ choreographic score The Price of Us Waiting, part of the Embodying Power and Place project co-supported by Nightwood Theatre and Native Earth Performing Arts.

Every company came to play! In the spirit of my ongoing work as a teacher to decolonize my classrooms, we opened with Native Earth Performing Arts’ 2020 Weesageechak Begins to Dance festival, a collection of pieces by emerging Indigenous artists that this year took place as a series of conversations online, including screenings of works in progress. We were joined in class by NEPA Artistic Director Keith Barker, who showed immense generosity of spirit as he talked about his journey into the arts and into claiming his identity as a proud Métis man, answered student questions with an open heart, and reminded us all that land acknowledgements are celebrations, not obligations.

Turtle Island: our shared home now. What can we do to celebrate and sustain our home?

Next we hosted friends from the Theatre Centre, Aislinn Rose and Adam Lazarus, who are behind the important Bouffon clown work Daughter. It’s an uncomfortable takedown of toxic masculinity in its most mundane form, and together in class we had a searching conversation about the costs vs benefits of performing a show that may cause some viewers harm, in order to open other viewers’ eyes to the harm they already cause. We screened Factory Theatre’s Acts of Faith, a live-to-camera show about a young Black woman’s agency made literally, dramaturgically, and thematically for the Zoom room, and then followed that up with a refreshingly tactile non-Zoom-based experience, Buddies in Bad Times’ Rhubarb! “Book of the Festival,” featuring a hardback full of relational and participatory pieces by LGBTQ2SIA+ artists that we can keep, hold, and return to again and again when, you know, ZOOM FATIGUE.

This week, we come back to questions of colonial legacies and settler responsibilities as we screen brand-new work by Indigenous women and two-spirit artists as part of the Embodying Power and Place project. Spearheaded by Nightwood associate artist and dramaturg Donna-Michelle St-Bernard and co-supported by Nightwood Theatre and Native Earth, this project features 12 pieces that respond to the 12 chapters contained in “Reclaiming Power and Place,” the report of the national (Canadian) inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

The 2021 Rhubarb! Festival of queer performance art, curated by Clayton Lee. Good times away from the Zoom room!

We could not be more grateful for the shared time, effort, and labour all of these companies and artists have brought to our table, and each were grateful for the support that we were able to pass along to them in turn. Adam made me laugh when I made our $1K offer, expressing surprise at so much money for art, while Aislinn talked about using her speakers’ fee to support the purchase of much-needed new glasses. Nightwood figured out how to donate a portion of their fee to one of the charities to which they are directing donations for Embodying Power and Place, while also paying artists to join us as speakers. Native Earth Performing Arts performed, as always, its structural commitment to resource-sharing in the spirit of the Dish With One Spoon Wampum when it waived its screening fee for our access to Weesageechak; we redirected some of that money toward a screening of Manidoons Collective’s acclaimed performance bug (our capstone event, happening next week! See below – it’s public and FREE to register!), and we used the rest to pay for a session on decolonizing the work of theatre reviewing with Carly Maga of the Toronto Star.

On April 1 our class will host our final guests, Yolanda Bonnell, actor and creator, and Jay Havens, scenographer, as they share their acclaimed work bug and speak with us about decolonization and the theatre in Toronto and beyond. Please register to join this free, public event using the address in the image!

The class this year has looked unlike anything I’ve run before. Sure, we’ve seen the performances, just like always, and sure, we’ve done readings about the “global city,” the “intercultural city,” settler encounters with Indigenous performances and more, just like always. But it has not been business as usual in the Zoom room (as if it could be!).

For one thing, we meet just 1.5 hours a week, rather than a typical block of 3h/week. (That three-hour block is meant to accommodate theatre visits, after all!) Instead, I set pre-class prep tasks for the students two days ahead of our scheduled meetings; this gives them a chance to engage independently with the work on offer and do some independent writing, as their time and interests permit.

For another, most of our classes are comprised of Q&A sessions with artists: these are a chance for students to connect with creators, actors, directors, playwrights, and administrators. While I love the sound my own voice as much as the next prof, the truth is we are all tired, and right now what we need is opportunities to be inspired, to hear creative workers talk with joy about their practice and to offer us the chance to respond to and engage with that work in ways that light up our own creative sparks. More lectures? Not helpful.

Of course, I fully expect that, come evaluation time, a few students are going to say “Kim didn’t lecture enough,” or “we didn’t talk enough about the readings.” Maybe true; this is a patch-job class structure as much as it is a thoughtful and reasoned solution to a ridiculous global emergency. Next time out, I’ll aim for a bit more balance.

But never will I regret giving over the majority of my class time, and ALL of our class resources (plus some generously donated to support Manidoons’ visit with bug – please come!), to uplift the incredible work our artists do and the literally invaluable contribution they make to our wellbeing as humans, citizens, and communities – pandemic or none.

So what about you, Kelsey? What resources have you had to reallocate during this hairy pandemic school year, and how has that gone?

– Kim

Academic Mentorship in the Zoom Era: The AC Survival Guide Continues!

Dear Kim,

Happy belated International Women’s Day!

One year ago, I was sitting in a bar in Toronto, having beers with a friend. We were chatting waiting for food when my eye was drawn to a TV hoisted in the top corner of the room. The news ticker announced that the University of Toronto was temporarily shutting its doors due to COVID-19.

Like watching a wave roll onto the beach, I stared at the TV – intrigued, confused, a little nervous: one by one, the universities closed.

COVID-19 in Canada: Virtual Town Hall | CBC News special - YouTube
A television program that could not have existed on CBC a year ago.

That night was the last time I was in a bar.

Shifts in mentorship haven’t been a major talking point in pandemic-academic (pancademic, anyone?) circles. But the structures of mentoring have taken a major hit this year.

Mentors and mentees have been enveloped in a cloud of increased labour, affecting everything from availability and scheduling to emotional space. Virtual conferences curtail chatting between sessions or at events, making it hard to maintain or forge informal connections. One-on-one meetings are relegated to zoom or the phone, adding a formal and time-sensitive element to conversations, both official and casual.

All of this adds up to loss: of intellectual growth, of professional development opportunities, of community building, of human connections.

A lot of us are feeling the effects of this loss. I miss being able to meet with mentors in person. I miss forging connections at conferences. I miss humans that aren’t in my “bubble.”

But, when I reflect on the year, I am also struck by the mentorship opportunities that have emerged: an increase in free, widely available, online sessions with high profile speakers, hosted by artistic and academic communities; the generosity of colleagues who have noticed a new face on a zoom call and reached out via email to offer “zoom dates” or resources; friends who have slid in to co-mentorship roles, wherein parties of similar rank and experience discuss professional development and mentor each other in areas of strength.

Which brings me to my question for the week: As the dust of the pandemic starts to settle, where do you think scholarly mentorship is headed? Where would you like it to head? Is there anything we can take with us from this strange time? Anything we should leave behind?

– Kelsey

***

Dear Kelsey,

A year ago, I was on a VIA train, heading home from my Thursday teaching at Western (in London, ON) to my home in the Hamilton area. We were somewhere between Brantford and Aldershot, rocking along through the still-cold winter night, when a text came through on my phone. Western was going virtual for the remainder of the semester.

VIA Rail cancelling all Canadian trips until further notice | Urbanized
Train riding, a novelty of the past (and future?)

That was the last time I was on a train, the last time I performed my otherwise-routine commute.

The question you pose is one I’ve been thinking a lot about: what should we bring with us from the pandemic world to improve our academic labour in the future? (Assuming this pandemic ends anytime soon… and I’m a bit skeptical, to be honest.) What should we leave behind? I read a piece recently that argued we need to bring back in-person office hours (yes, agreed), and in-person department meetings (REALLY??). But that feels like the tip of the iceberg to me.

Let’s start with the mentorship piece you raise.

I’m more often than not a mentor, rather than a mentee, now that I’m mid-career and fairly senior at my school. I feel the many stressors of this time that you so aptly highlight: I don’t like Zoom meetings very much, and I find sitting and talking for a set period of time, through screens, with my ongoing bad-lighting-weird-shadows Zoom issues constantly distracting me, really agitating. (THANK YOU for the “hide self view” tip btw – SO GREAT!!)

So I’ve begun strategizing around how to make the experience better, less Zoom-y, and I’ve decided to implement a new strategy: NO VIDEO.

This is an extension of my already-popular “Zoom dog walks,” in which I take office hours while walking Emma the Dog, using my nice new noise-canceling headphones. I head for a local park, minimizing sidewalk distractions, and when the weather is nice we just sit on a bench for the chat.

Following the lead of Emma the dog, as ever.

No video is a requirement for these walks, more often than not, and I’ve found that my mental landscape opens when I’m talking and looking around me, at the world, rather than at a screen. (We already know Zoom is a deadening environment, on purpose – our affect is flattened and often digitally edited, making creativity, for me anyway, harder on Zoom.)

A couple of weeks ago I tested this IRL: I held a student meeting (part lesson, part mentoring session) in person, and we did social-distance walkies with Emma while discussing the relationship between theatre and history. We couldn’t look at each other (SOCIAL DISTANCING) and so we looked ahead, behind, around; again, I felt the warmth of the sun and the attention I was paying to my footfalls a helpful way to expand my thinking. My brain was wandering, in a good way.

COVID-19 pandemic: Tips to remain 'sane and safe' during social distancing  | 2020-03-18 | Safety+Health Magazine

Colleagues in other fields, who have to Zoom even more than we do (I KNOW CAN YOU IMAGINE AAGGHHH), tell me that no video is increasingly the norm for their work – nobody can tell if you’re stretching on a yoga mat, lying on the floor looking at the ceiling (or the sky), or multitasking (ok, so maybe I don’t advocate this, but… sometimes it’s a thing. #departmentmeetings). There’s freedom – including freedom to think, to be in the moment, to move in and out of the moment as needed.

So, back to your question.

What I want to take with me, from the mentoring landscape of COVID, is just this: voices in my ears, my attention wandering just enough to spark creativity, and my body moving, gently, to help light that spark. This can happen on the phone, on Skype, on Zoom, on WhatsApp… or in person. It can happen with colleagues around the world, or it can happen with students IRL, walking along the river valley apart-together.

Maybe this is why I yearn for the return of in-person-style office hours, and why I have no interest whatsoever in going back to sitting in a lecture hall for those monthly department meetings.

– Kim

Where’s my collaboration mojo?

Happy March, dear AC readers!

In our last post, Kelsey reflected on a specific collaboration conundrum, and work-life balance in the pandemic. Today, Kim thinks about academic collaboration a bit more philosophically… with help from an amazing artist, Amanda Leduc.

***

Two weeks ago, I attended a book launch on Zoom. Not my first rodeo, either: we’ve been festival-ing and launching and doing all the conference things on Zoom for coming up to a year now. (March 12 is my Zoomiversary; what’s yours, Kelsey?)

But this launch was different.

Sorry if you missed it! The launch for Amanda Leduc’s new novel, The Centaur’s Wife, was Tuesday 16 February. There is a recording: view it here!

The celebration was for Amanda Leduc’s new novel, The Centaur’s Wife, an extraordinary work that reflects on love, desire, grief and loss through a lens equal parts magic realism, fairy tale, and disability justice. (I HIGHLY recommend you order it. You can also check out Kelsey’s interview with Amanda, from 2020, here.)

We opened in now-utter-familiarity: the host, novelist and activist for literary equity Jael Richardson, was dropped from her internet connection mid-way through her delightful introduction. Turns out her power had gone off; in haste (though with spectacular grace, it must be said), fellow author Larissa Lai stepped in without missing a beat.

The launch then began in earnest not with Amanda, but with two of her collaborators: Victoria Carr, the musical artist who narrated the audio book (The Centaur’s Wife is the first novel in Canada to be published in all accessible formats simultaneously), and Anne Collins, Amanda’s editor at Penguin Random House. Victoria shared a song and then spoke to Larissa about her engagement with the characters, the process of recording the audio book, and the importance of being part of a small but mighty movement for literary accessibility (thanks to Amanda’s own perseverance). Anne and Larissa then talked about the long, sometimes messy, and always rewarding process of working with an author to bring the kernel of an idea into being as a novel-length work, written and rewritten again over a nearly five-year period.

Finally, Amanda stepped in to receive our applause, answer many challenging questions, and offer clear-eyed and fierce reflections on the work of literary artists (now more than ever).

Amanda speaking about her 2020 nonfiction book, Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space, on TVO’s The Agenda.

I was riveted to the launch, and not just because Amanda is my friend and neighbour. It was compelling from start to finish precisely because it foregrounded literary arts as collaborative writing and publishing as the work of “a community,” as Amanda noted at the end of the event, directing our attention to the acknowledgements at the back of her book and inviting us all to read them.

It takes a village to make a book: we all know this, whether we write novels or nonfiction or monographs for other scholars or books for students or children. We all, in the scholarly publishing community, have our own acknowledgements pages. But Amanda’s launch reflected much more than the basics of this kind of book-as-village feel: it mirrored the fulsome, utterly joyous, depth-of-flavour-process that birthed her new book into being, and as I listened to and then reflected on the discussions about collaboration peppered throughout the launch, I started to reflect on my own collaborative journeys.

And I asked myself: what exactly are we – we academics, in particular – doing when we collaborate? How thick, how deep, are those processes for us? Especially when it comes to making books – books we might call “solo authored” on our CVs – where are our collaborators, and how do we make that process richer and more meaningful (not to mention more visible!) for all?

I’ve been an editor most of my career; I’ve written solo books too, of course, but I have gravitated toward (and, somewhat to my surprise, stayed with) editing in part because of the satisfaction it gives me to support another writer as they try to locate the core of their argument, and then reorganize the skeleton of their work better to support it. This work is often long, it’s often fraught, and – spoiler alert – I don’t think it’s aided in any way by the discursive frameworks that traditionally describe the academic writing process (aka: publish or perish, anyone?).

The scientists are not alone: this cartoon shows a racetrack-style setup, with a scientist with manuscript at one end, the words “paper accepted!” in lights at the other, and a collection of peers with instruments of torture ranged along the route. Save the grim reaper, all the cartoon scientists are white; this does not shock me.

Do you remember the first time you submitted a piece of work to an academic journal? You prayed for “accept”, braced for “reject”, and while you knew that “revise and resubmit” wasn’t ideal, it would be acceptable (after a day or two, and maybe after a good cry).

I remember mine: in the third year of my PhD I sent a lightly revised term paper (later to be published in Modern Drama, and I’ll come back to that) to Theatre Journal, one of the most prestigious venues in our field. I received a fast response: a reject from the then-editor, who had clearly sussed out that this was a term paper and needed a lot of work to be even peer-reviewable. TJ is a big journal, publishing four times a year and loaded down with submissions, so I don’t blame this editor (who was a volunteer!!) for ending at reject (plus a couple of sentences to ostensibly steer me toward revision) – although I do still think about the prof who encouraged me to publish the paper without offering me any further advice on how to do that. (Story for another time.)

I was devastated. But I was also aware that I was supposed to be devastated: only the best get published, right? You are clearly not good enough yet, Kim! Work harder! Graft alone to make that paper better! When it reflects that you are smart-smart-enough you will get the royal “accept”, and then you can feel like less of an imposter!

When the imposter syndrome expert realizes she has imposter syndrome… #realtalk

What a high, barred gate those three options, “reject”, “revise and resubmit”, and “accept” make together, yes? They keep out those who are not in the know; those who don’t have sympathetic mentors; those who do not come from academic or cultural privilege.

I learned this unspoken fact of academic life only through my connection to Modern Drama, where I was an editorial assistant: I was lucky enough to be working with then co-editor Joanne Tompkins on my research “day job”, which meant I could approach her for advice. I shared both the TJ editor’s note and my draft with her; she then took the time to teach me the difference between a term paper and an article (something every graduate student needs to learn sooner or later, btw, because it is not knowledge that sprouts unbidden from your degree certificate).

She guided me gently through a rigorous editorial process, then sent the paper for peer review at Modern Drama. It remains today one of the most downloaded papers in the history of the journal, and one of which I’m most proud.

Joanne is my editorial mentor, as I am mentor to others now. I’m not saying this to suggest that Joanne and I are special; we were/are able to do this kind of mentoring work because our work circumstances are fortunately such that we have the time to do the actual labour of editing – to undertake the kind of process Anne undertook with Amanda, a genuine, durational collaboration between author and editor, writer and curious, informed, but detached eye.

Penguin Random House editor Anne Collins.
Kim’s editorial mentor, Professor Joanne Tompkins (Queensland)

As Anne put it during the launch, we editors are privileged to invest in the work of authors for whom the piece under construction is owned, held dear; this allows us to hold and support them, cheer them on and push them harder, all the while letting them know that if the roof caves in someone is there with a fix, a hug, words of encouragement and a path forward out of the muddle. (I really like this metaphor of investment; it captures what I feel as an editor.)

In the academy, though, who really has this kind of investable time? Editing work is considered “volunteer” work among us profs, and detrimentally it often valued as such: I had to fight to make my editing labour “count” when time came for me to go up for promotion, and only one of the three external examiners of my portfolio made explicit note of my editing’s proper, collaborative value. We’re usually told not to bother editing: monographs or high-profile journal articles “count” for more than “edited” volumes, as though there is no work done in those projects. (HA!!!) Editing a journal? Be prepared for nobody at your institution to notice or care.

In other words: what (still) most “counts” in the publish-or-perish landscape is the labour you are expected to do alone, isolated, terrified even that the result will never be good enough.

Of course your finished book/article will bear the hands of others, and sometimes (rarely) those hands will be very hands-on, the hands of a supportive editor with the time and space to share. More often, though, they will be the hands of outsourced copyeditors paid a pittance, and publishers whose interest extends to “get the damn thing in on time”. At many crossover book publishers (Routledge, Bloomsbury Methuen, I’m looking at you), traditional peer review isn’t even guaranteed anymore, depriving us (when the reviewer is kind, when the reviewer recognizes their responsibility) of what little thoughtful third-party advice we could count on when it’s needed most.

This is a catastrophe. Editing labour is arduous but urgent and needs supporting and rewarding, at all levels of publication and among both academics and career editors. (When I talked to Amanda about this, she noted that Anne is herself a rarity in the world of fiction publishing.)

Further, sending graduate students out into the academic work world equipped with the belief that their careers stand or fall on the things they write while isolated, uncertain of their worth, and filled with anxiety is genuinely cruel and a recipe for ongoing exclusion and white-washing in the ivory tower.

Now might be a good time to remind ourselves that Amanda’s brilliant new book is at bottom about disability justice, about making space for others in worlds that demonize difference; it was made possible because Anne held Amanda, and Amanda worked with and for Anne, and through Anne’s support, over a period of years – culminating in a triumph.

How many of us can say that about even one piece of our academic writing? I’m genuinely curious.

What are your stories of collaboration in academic labour, friends? What are the highs? The lows? Is it getting better from where you sit, or worse? Let us know.

Work/Life: Is there even a distinction anymore?

Dear Kim.

Last week, a friend suggested we work together on a project.

Possible answers swirled through might head: Absolutely! Let me check my schedule and get back to you? That’s a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad, idea.

Image result for no good very bad
A picture from Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.

“Yeah …” I managed. “That might work. Let’s talk about it more next time?”

“Sure!”

The conversation flowed on, but I can’t help but reflect on it.

To contextualize (and because I have friends that read this blog), this person is well outside of academia (yes, such people exist in my life!). My friend is totally lovely. I value them immensely. And also: the thought of working with them made every muscle in my body tense up.

In doing a bit of soul searching, I think my full body resistance to working with my friend is that I view my roles as friend and as collaborator differently. As a friend, I’m a supporter, a cheerleader, a patient listener. As a collaborator, I have ideas, impulses, and opinions. I also have skin in the game, so I sometimes state, and advocate for, my opinions. For a friend that hasn’t experienced me in work-collaborator mode, I suspect that distinction would be a little jarring.

But I realize that in this weird new Zoomiverse, the distinction between my different selves is slipping. As everyone keeps noting, the pandemic has flattened our experiencing, putting our teaching, writing, learning, and socializing lives in front of a screen. And that screen is often the same screen, in the same location, in the same home, that one has been in for months.

Image result for computer screen
Does this blank computer screen feel frighteningly familiar?

How, precisely, is attending a Zoom screening of a theatre show for a class I’m teaching distinct from watching a Netflix show for pleasure before bed?

How, exactly, are department meetings distinct from teleconference family check-ins?

Is there any real distinction between my professional and personal selves (other than the fact that professional me wears nicer shirts) now that those selves spend all their time in front of a computer?

More importantly, do the distinctions between work and non-work activities matter at the moment? Should I be trying to protect those boundaries? Or is it a time to let them go?

Any thoughts for a drifting online teacher?

– Kelsey

Balancing? Or drifting away?

Oh God Kelsey, WORD.

I’m having an especially hard time with this one lately. Maybe it’s the wintry conditions here in southern Ontario (not -36C, sorry Calgary! But still stupidly cold by our standards), or maybe it’s FEBRUARY, or maybe it’s just that we’re coming up on T-minus-almost a year ago.

I look at the staircase that links my kitchen to my office and I think: dammit. It’s the stairs again.

I WISH.

One of the paradoxes of COVID is this: we’ve been in the same space, more or less, for a year now. Because that space has had to open up to contain our entire worlds, our worlds have also had to shrink to fit the space of our homes, our screens. The thing that seemed kind of unusually cozy (even a bit like an adventure??!) at the start of it all (permission to stay home!!!) now feels not only unbelievably stifling, but like a recipe for emotional burnout.

The Infinity Staircase, after you’ve stared at it every day, fifteen times a day, for a year.

I’m struggling like you with these feelings, but I’ve come up recently with a couple of useful hacks for changing things up a bit.

FIRST: I bought some good wireless headphones. (Pro tip: if you work for a university in any capacity, email your line manager right now to find out if there’s a tech fund for people like you. Chances are there is, and all you need for top-quality wireless headphones is access to $300.)

How is this a game changer? I now leave not just my home space, but my headspace, when I go out walking the dog (or just myself). I do take some work calls on walks, but mostly I try to reserve walks for personal calls. The latter human interlocutors are more understanding about all the dog-meets-dog-shuffle-sniff-sniff noises, and it’s fun to share Emma’s walkies travails with said humans. It all adds up to a change of pace and space that I can attach, cognitively and in my muscles and bones, to pleasurable chit-chat. Sometimes, friends with dogs in other cities even take synchronous dog walks with me!

Kim and Emma the Dog out walking on a very frozen Lake Ontario. Kim enjoys the sun! Emma prefers the smells.

SECOND: try moving the screens around. (I realize this one might not be feasible if you have just one big screen you use for all the things; in that case, try the phone. I have never used my phone to watch videos, but perhaps I’m a luddite that way.)

My strategy is to reserve all work-related viewing for upstairs in the home office, and all home-related viewing for downstairs in the living-dining area. Whenever possible, I use my iPad (second hand and circa 2013 – seriously, this is all it’s good for now!) for Netflix, Crave et al. (Also for reading newspapers, an excellent after-dinner activity.) A change of place, and/or a change of screen, translates – as with the dog-walking-with-headphones – into a slight shift in how the tech is used, which can make a not insignificant difference to your sense of why you’re using it. I mean, if you think about it, our teaching and living technologies have always overlapped (from reading to walking to having coffee with people); it’s about the when, the where, and the how we frame experiences to be either “work” or “life”.

(And one more hack, which [maybe?] by now goes without saying… no screens in the bedroom, people. For me, this one is huge. Reading before bed is a pleasure no pandemic can take from you.)

A kitty cat with a good book and a cuppa. Let’s pretend it’s decaf! Seriously: all the other memes I could find featured thin white women reading in bed. WTF is up with that?

Now Kelsey, to your OTHER issue, the catalyst for this post.

I can’t speak to the project your friend proposed, or your interest in it, but if the big issue is actually your fear of letting such a collaboration fully and completely consume the thin sliver of matzo currently separating your two Kelseys, perhaps the best thing to do is to let your friend know that, right now, the prospect of any more work intruding upon your home-life relationships is more than your Zoom-ravaged heart can handle.

Tell them that as soon as it’s allowed, you’ll meet for a sunny coffee on a bench atop Mount Royal and talk about how collaborating as friends could work, and about what challenges it will inevitably create (you are so not alone here). Because at the end of the day keeping work and life separate isn’t just a labour of COVID; it’s an ongoing challenge for us all.

– Kim

The view from Montreal’s Mount Royal in autumn. We will meet again!

Welcome to the AC winter 2021 survival guide!*

Readers, welcome to 2021. Sort of like 2020, but colder, with more masks, and with slightly more hope.

The last few months have been a trial by bandwidth, and that’s not the half of it. Over the holidays Kelsey and Kim have been trying to work out what the AC can do to help us all weather the winter-semester storm as best we can. Welcome, therefore, to our ad-hoc AC survival guide, a series of short, dialogic posts in which we discuss emergent COVID-related teaching problems and what we’re doing to, um, cope.

Just to be clear, you do you. Both Kelsey and Kim endorse both Lisa Simpson and coffee as coping mechanisms.

Mostly we’re drawing from our experience, recognizing that it’s probably a lot like your experience. But we ALSO know that our experiences are specific to our bodies, lives, and circumstances: we are two white cis-women without kids home-schooling in the next room, and we are fortunate to have stable, well paid teaching jobs.

We know the experiences yielded by our privilege will inevitably mask stuff going on for others, and that’s why *we would LOVE it if you would reach out, in the comments, on FB or Twitter, or by email to tell us what’s going on with you, and what issues you’d like us to discuss in the survival guide in the weeks ahead.

Thanks in advance, and without further ado…

Lord help us all who did not train as lighting designers.

First up: Trouble in the Zoom Room

Dear Kelsey,

I’ve been trying to outfit my teaching space for routine large-class zooming (something I didn’t have to contend with last semester, when I was allowed to teach hybrid/in person). It has been… a time. I’m a bit, um, in need. And I know you are AMAZING at this kind of thing.

I had the great idea of turning part of my underused antique office cabinet into what I now call Dr Kimmy’s Cabinet of Zoom; the height and space of the top shelf are just right, and this way I can literally close the door on teaching or work calls when they are over. Ideal, yes?

Inspired by, but not the same as. Although I do consider Zoom a kind of horror flick at this point.

I thought I’d cleared the biggest hurdle when I landed a nice mic and webcam. The mic (a Blue Yeti Nano) and webcam (a Logitech Streamcam) are both terrific and improve the zooming experience immeasurably. But I forgot about one key thing: the part where I need to connect them both to my computer. Simultaneously.

My computer, for those interested, is a 2017 MacBook. It was purchased in a panic after I had a screaming row with my poor dad on the phone at my kitchen table, promptly dumped a full cup of coffee on my 2013 MacBook, and destroyed it completely.

My computer, alas, has only ONE port. It is a USB-C port. It is needed, in high-stakes high-energy webcam-plus-mic situations, as you might expect, to charge the damn computer. And of course, there is no dongle (aka “adapter”) on the market, not even from Apple, that will allow a 2017 MacBook with only one USB-C port to both run a USB-C peripheral device (like a nice mic, or a spiffy webcam) AND charge the battery at the same time.

This is what I’m dealing with. PC users, stop laughing.

My first question, then, is: WTF APPLE???

My next question – composed in haste while pushing the students into breakout rooms, disconnecting the peripherals, and plugging in the charger in order to suck at least a few more minutes’ worth of power into the laptop – is this:

Does ANYONE actually look good on Zoom?

Can a tolerable appearance (= not constantly looking at one’s image and worrying about the way the webcam has converted your ordinary human wrinkles into Utah-grade caverns) be achieved without a) enabling the ridiculous touch-up features (the feminist in me withers), and/or b) without suddenly, at 46, buying make-up for the first time and learning how to apply it? (The feminist in me slowly dies.)

The how-to videos suggest overhead lighting. For some reason, this makes things worse for me: not only do I not look better, but I HATE overhead lighting and so my desire to continue teaching into a screen drops precipitously as the will to go on leaks out of my toes.

They also suggest a snappy background, but I can’t achieve the coveted “all your books as background” look without fully rearranging my home office space, which is also my DVD-viewing nostalgia centre, AND my closet.

Well that would be convenient, wouldn’t it?

And don’t even get me started on what to wear!

Kelsey, help me do. What’s your solution to the multi-armed zoom monster? Do you have top tips on dongle use, lighting design, and best footwear for standing in one place for 90 minutes straight without wrecking your hips?

Gratefully,

Kim

Dear Kim,

Can we make a collective pact that when this whole thing *gestures wildly like a heron in a winter wind* comes to a close we will never speak of Zoom and its many distressing background issues again?

Great. Now, to your question: No, no one looks good one zoom. I’m sure numerous studies are being conducted on the subject (all held up in peer review, I imagine), and they will confirm this with hard, quantitative, evidence. For now, I offer my own Zoom space as solidarity.

Building off my ergonomic efforts last year, my Zoom space is fairly friendly to my body. The downside is that it’s a set design disaster. Because I spend many of my daylight hours in front of my desk, I’ve put the desk in front of the window (looking out right now far preferable to looking in… again). Sadly, because of the way the room is configured, this means my background isn’t uniform, and my mini freezer is directly in the middle.

A non-curated view of Kelsey’s potential zoom background, mini freezer included.

Helping matters, the overhead light is to the side of the desk, my floor isn’t flat so everything tilts, every so slightly, toward the center of the room, and I teach at night, so half the time the combination of overhead, computer, and outside light make my video tint blue.

So, what I’m essentially telling you is that a great deal of the time I appear on Zoom as a character from an early 2000s music video.

Also, hours into watching myself on zoom, I have come to the conclusion that everyone who has interacted with me came to long ago: goodness gracious am I expressive.

All of which is to say: I empathize.

To solving your issues, may I suggest a combination of strategy and surrender.

Strategy 1: Hide yourself from view.

While I think all of us should embrace our appearances and/or (in my case) very expressive selves, let’s be honest: it’s not totally ideal to be staring at yourself for hours a day. And you know what? Zoom has a button for that. You can toggle the view to hide yourself from view. I don’t do it super frequently, but it does offer one a break.

Helpful hint: check your frame before you turn yourself off.

Strategy 2: Fight the space.

Generally speaking this is terrible advice, but desperate times and measures here, my dear. I Zoom EVERY DAY. Attending to camera placement three times a day simply cannot be a thing. So, I’ve given up aesthetically pleasing furniture arrangement in service of a more reliable Zoom background; I’ve tilted the desk and monitor diagonally across a space where it would make way more sense for it to be parallel.

Kelsey’s “zoom cabinet,” aka: her office nook.

Strategy 3: Surrender. A lot.

Is my screen blue half the time? Why yes it is. Does my camera occasionally cut the top of my head out of frame? Yup. But, also, Zoom kicked me out of my own class meeting last week. So, really: not my most pressing issues.

And to borrow a move from your pedagogical playbook, I do think less than ideal Zoom aesthetics push back effectively against the creeping normalization of fake books backgrounds. Messy Zoom set-ups can remind folks that we’re all human and things are still weird, even in this new calendar year. Which, in this moment, is useful and even perhaps subversive (and feminist).

In short: fix what you can (may I suggest a new Zooming device?) and give in to the rest.

If nothing else, maybe you’ll learn to love overhead lighting? #2021goals

Over and out for now,

Kelsey