On teaching and the mental load, part 2 (some notes toward solutions)

Last week I wrote about teaching in relation to the gendered mental load – the experience, all too common among women, of both doing the work and managing the work, at home but also in the classroom. Of carrying more than their fair share of the burden, often invisibly, because of the subtle cognitive and emotional responsibilities that accrue to both domestic and pedagogical labour – and which for a variety of reasons are still assumed, even if largely unconsciously, by most people in our culture to be “women’s work.”

After reading that post, I bet a few of you were thinking: gosh, yes. I see some of that in my experience. But, Kim: what’s the solution?

If I had the solution, of course, I would be rich and famous – and probably hiding out on a remote island trying to stave off the angry, anti-feminist internet trolls.

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So no, answers have I none. I do, however, have some ideas about how we might do better at redistributing the mental load. And these come from my own recent experiences – on holiday, believe it or not.

From 1-11 July I was hiking and cycling in the Calder valley in West Yorkshire. (Calder is the ancestral home of the Brontë sisters, btw; these amazing women were POSTER CHICKS for the mental load, thanks to their arsehole, alcoholic brother Branwell. And Branwell, dammit! You would not be enjoying all this weird posterior fame if it were not for your shockingly talented and enterprising sisters. Jackass.)

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Anne, Emile, and Charlotte (right) vs Branwell (left) – as per the BBC, in the 2016 biopic To Walk InvisibleGreat fun – check it out.

Anyway, back to my holiday. I had put my out-of-office message on my work email and disabled it on my phone (which was along with me for navigation purposes); on my computer, I funnelled work emails into a holiday inbox (my computer was along with me because I’d planned to do some free writing toward a new book, between hikes and rides). I decided to check my personal email once a day, largely to get rid of spam and finalize some plans with friends post-holiday.

Things did not start smoothly. I was full of anxiety those first few days away. It was the come-down after two long weeks of teaching Western’s study-abroad class in London, England, during which time I’d been responsible for 12 Canadian students pretty much 24/7. Some of those students presented challenges for me – let’s just say they were struggling with their own mental loads, and as the prof-in-residence their loads were necessarily mine, too.

As I’d been teaching all day, every day in London I’d been managing other stuff, too – research projects in the air, a journal issue about to be released, two graduate students nearing completion. I’d worked through the day on my final Friday before vacation to tidy up as many loose ends as possible, but as I tried to settle into holiday rhythm I felt convinced I couldn’t just leave it all to be on vacation for 10 days. Too many people were counting on me!

Of course I’d done everything I could to clear my inbox; still, I felt nervous and uneasy.

On my fourth day away, overcome by this unease and against my self-imposed rule, I checked my work email’s holiday inbox. I reasoned with myself that I could delete the spam and would feel better for it not overflowing. (Spam is evil. EVIL EVIL EVIL.)

You can guess what happened next. I found an urgent email from a colleague, writing on behalf of one of my graduate students; that student had not received the work I’d sent back to them before my break, owing to an email glitch. The tone of my colleague’s message was polite, but it read to me like they assumed I’d dropped the ball on my student and left a mess for someone else to clean up.

So what did I do? Did I sigh, roll my eyes, and then say to myself: “damn! How annoying! Let’s shoot the work back again, with a copy to the colleague, and remind everyone of my holiday dates. Then let’s forget about it until the holiday ends”?

Nope. Of course not.

What I did was, I lost my shit.

First, I panicked. Then I emailed my colleague with details (let’s say excessive details) of all the work I’d been doing to support the student in question, while also teaching my study abroad course. I then re-sent all the work to the student, with copies to my colleague and another member of our admin team. I sent separate notes to the admin team member involved. I made a full evening’s work for myself, while on holiday, and produced in the backwash almost 48 hours’ worth of fretting to follow.

What happened in the end? My student replied with thanks, apologized for the email mishap, and my colleague replied supportively, too. Sensing my mood, on about my sixth or seventh email, they also reminded me to forget about all of this not-actually-big-deal, not-really-world-ending stuff and just enjoy my holiday.

Since this minor but telling email meltdown, I’ve been thinking a lot about it.

What does it say about my mental load at work?

What does it say about my own expectations of myself in relation to that load?

What does it say about the systemic issues that shape both that load and my relationship with it?

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Things about which to lose one’s shit: maybe this. Maybe not email. (An image of an actual cobbled climb in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire. Really.)

Lesson number one for me was this: I made extra work for myself where I did not need to. I overreacted to a simple situation and created both stress and labour where none was required. I made extra work for myself by checking my email on holiday. I did not need to do that! I SHOULD NOT have done that! The world would not have ended had I not looked at my colleague’s email until my break was over. Armageddon was not even in sight.

So that’s it, right? I created my own mental load problem. The solution? Just say no! Simples, ja?

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Not so fast. Lesson number two: I did what I did because I live inside a work structure that creates an onerous mental load for me on a regular basis, to which I’ve become slowly and unknowingly accustomed.

I understand my responsibility, as a teacher, to be to tend that load at all times. And more: I have learned to peg my self worth to my tending of that load at all times.

After two weeks of supporting 12 young women in a huge, foreign city, my pastoral care radar was at its max. I was utterly drained.

Maybe I checked my email because my body thought that experience wasn’t yet over. Maybe I checked my email because I’d created some destructive muscle memory that needed satisfying.

Most likely I checked my email because, unconsciously, I believe that’s what “good teachers” do: they make themselves available to their students 24/7. They never let their students down. They bend over backwards. They sacrifice their breaks. They martyr themselves.

To say this is destructive, wrong-headed, and awful is both true and not helpful. Remember what I argued in my last post, when I cited research into student responses on course evaluations: as a rule, women need to work harder to be perceived as caring and supportive teachers at university level. Whether that scenario holds true in every classroom or not doesn’t really matter: women are by and large socialized to over-care. And we do it at our own expense, more often than not. (We are socialized to do that, too.)

How do we begin to fix this?

Let’s start with what we – women in situations similar to the ones I’ve been describing – can do to help ourselves unload some of that mental load. In my own case, step #1 would have been for me to leave my computer behind on my holiday. (Free writing? Who cares! Just take the holiday. THEN write.)

Step #2 would have been for me to delete my work email completely from my phone.

Step #3, upon finally receiving my colleague’s email, would have been to take a deep breath and go for a walk. Then after some reflection to reply as I suggested above: briefly, calmly, unapologetically, and with the missing work attached.

(I might also, at the same time, have noted to my colleague – a kind and sympathetic human who would have heard the message! – some ways that the tone of their email might have been adjusted to help me feel less burdened by the situation.)

How could I have gotten to a mental place where steps 1-3 might have been conceivable for me? That would have involved me, in the first instance, asking for more support during my study abroad labour: being extremely clear to the colleagues around me what I needed, and asking for those things, frankly and kindly and, again, without apology.

But of course, there’s a catch. Academics in general, and women (among other non-white-male) academics in particular, rely for their status and security upon appearing to be shit-together-don’t-need-no-help types; asking for help reveals weakness, which places us, potentially, at risk.

Now, some of you (just like me, as I just wrote that sentence) are likely thinking: but there’s lots of help available at my school. And my male (among other) colleagues are super kind and supportive.

Yup, sure, true. But guess what else? Our mental loads are learnedingrained; they are systemic and they are tenacious, regardless of the objective realities of our work situations, and regardless of the kindness of our male (among other) colleagues. (They sneak in. They aren’t so immediately easy to see as a colleague’s gesture of kindness.)

Which means that it’s not just down to us to get a grip and take a holiday and ask for help.

It’s actually down to our colleagues, our line managers, our chairs and deans and others in positions of power at our institutions to help change the culture of the mental load.

The key thing to remember about the mental load is that it is often invisible. We have to work, sometimes very hard, to bring it into focus.

So: those of us who carry a lot of load need to look straight at it, and question whether or not we should be carrying it. We need to ask ourselves why we are carrying it: who benefits from that carriage? At whose expense does it happen? Then, we need to take some action based on our responses.

This might be as small an action as speaking out about it, candidly, to loved ones and colleagues who can help. It might even involve speaking openly with our students about the mental load. (I’m a big advocate for that: students, once invited to see teachers as human beings, often do so, and do so with real empathy.)

Just as crucially, those who do not carry as much load need to look with nuance at the others around them, and question how much mental load those others are carrying – and on whose behalf. For some of us, in fact the first job might be to look at the load itself, maybe to see it for the first time. To consider carefully the labour behind the stuff that just magically, somehow, gets done. And to ask who the hell is doing it, if we are not.

And again, the imperative to take action pertains: to ask questions, to imagine alternatives. Maybe just to make fewer assumptions.

Finally, at the level of structure – department level, faculty level – we need to do this work, and officially. How about a wellness task force (gender-balanced) to look at mental load specifically, to parse carefully the inequities in certain kinds of labour in our immediate environments, and to recommend action toward redress?

Or, even simpler – and with fewer risks of offloading the work of thinking about mental load onto those already burdened with mental load – how about some informal but curated discussions about how our local loads are distributed? (For this purpose, I’m a huge fan of Lois Weaver’s Long Table format. It is amazing because nobody leads; everyone must invest and hold a stake. Try it.)

When I started my academic job I got two excellent but flawed pieces of advice. The first was: keep your head down and publish, publish, publish. The second was: do not make yourself invaluable, or you will be placed on every committee ever.

The first problem with this advice is not that it’s bad; it’s that it is systemically naive. It assumes I can live with appearing both selfish and not quite good enough. For a woman like me in the academy, both of those prospects are social, and emotional, poison. Unbearable.

The second problem with this advice is that it expects me to adjust myself to a flawed system; it does not expect the system to open its eyes to me.

But here’s the thing: it’s not that hard to see what others are doing, going through – and what each of us is not actually doing about it. You just have to look a bit harder, more carefully, at greater depth. As academics, isn’t that what we are trained to do?

To end, and in the spirit of lightening the mental load, some snaps from Yorkshire – after I finally threw the email out the window. Enjoy and feel free.

Kim

 

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On teaching and the mental load, part one

A few days ago a good friend and colleague sent our group of female peers a link to a terrific cartoon about gendered labour in the household, and what the anonymous French author, known as Emma, calls “the mental load”.

(The cartoon, I’ve since learned, went viral shortly after it was published in English, so you may already have seen it; if not, click here.)

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The piece is feminist but it is not pedantic: it sensibly, carefully, rationally, and fairly discusses the nature of the intellectual labour demanded of women who find themselves in heterosexual relationships that seem, on the surface, quite equitable, but at bottom aren’t.

Emma demonstrates multiple instances in which women in apparently fair-trade partnerships assume the “mental load” of household management, doing a significant amount of bolt-on labour because the roster of chores – from paperwork to baby care to laundry management – belongs to them. As household “project managers”, these women do the management work AND a fair bit of the grunt work; the former, however, is often invisible. Result? Tired, irate female household members, and male household members who don’t understand why they don’t get enough credit for doing their share of household work.

I posted the cartoon on Facebook, and it got a mixed response. Plenty of my friends copped to not having any idea of such problems; certainly it wasn’t in their personal experience. Here, I pointed out, it’s worth remembering we are a pretty lucky lot: we are, most of us, academic feminists for a living. Stands to reason that lots of us have married feminist partners, male and female and non-binary.

But the “nope, not me” response was not the lot of it; several others – and to my surprise, a number of younger others – shared the link in turn and described having these very issues at home. Again, these are smart, educated, feminist women, with partners who share their values.

Which means that, even among the most sensibly feminist among us, we’ve still got a significant gendered-division-of-labour problem. And for many of us, it walks invisible.

Where does this persistent division come from? Emma’s cartoon makes this very nicely clear, especially toward the end (it’s worth reading the whole thing, btw). It’s not about individual men or women, or our desires or our choices, or our individual douchebaggery. It’s about the ways we have internalized, naturalized, and effectively dismissed our own experiences of patriarchal conditioning.

You know: the kind that says that good women get shit done around the house, while good men do exceptional stuff that supports their family’s wellbeing, but that also has the helpful effect of serving them power and status.

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I’m going to pause here for a second to remind us all that patriarchy does NOT equal men, and that women are NOT just patriarchy’s victims. Patriarchy is a system of social relations that organizes gendered individuals into groups, places divisive expectations on those groups, and then perpetuates those divisions as somehow natural, as connected to sexual embodiment rather than social nurture.

Patriarchy affects both men and women negatively, as well as sometimes positively. It affects women negatively more often than men, because women are the secondary group in the patriarchal binary. That said, women often make the best patriarchs: the system needs effective, successfully conforming women to keep other women in line.

OK: so now you’re thinking,

Kim! WTF does this have to do with teaching?

You don’t have to look far to discover that women’s uneven workload in the home has knock-on impacts for those who are both partners and/or parents, as well as researchers. Best practices in the recruitment, retention, and promotion of women in the academy now frequently acknowledge how key university-based support for women’s “mental load” is for promoting their academic success. (Though of course, it’s not usually called that, plainly and outright. It’s usually called “childcare support” or “flex time” or similar – something attached to a chore, not an ethos.)

Women who have too much work to do at home – especially in the key years after giving birth to children – simply cannot also give 60+ hours per week to teaching, research, and administration (with an emphasis on research, of course) in an effort to earn promotion, tenure, and then – the kicker – further promotion to full professor. The latter, in particular, is something in which women tend to lag significantly, even as women’s numbers in the graduate student and junior faculty cohort continue to climb.

(Excellent research into the gender imbalance in the senior professoriate and senior administrative ranks, across a range of disciplines, was conducted by an expert panel convened by the Council of Canadian Academies and made public in a report published in 2012. The panel was convened after the initial round of 19 appointments to the prestigious Canada Research Chairs program included, tellingly, not one woman. It’s worth a read; click here. For [slightly] older research, in the American context and published by the National Education Association, click here.)

So: women who do a lot of mental-load work at home don’t get promoted as fast, or at all, at work. They are TOO. BURNED. OUT.

So far so simple to understand.

But: I don’t do a lot of mental-load work at home; I live alone and am my own household boss. Even when I had a partner, we typically lived apart and did our own things. That’s surely part of why I’ve been as professionally successful as I have been: minimal mental load.

Still, Emma’s cartoon resonated with me fiercely. I wanted to know why. So I did some soul-searching.

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(Why is this woman smiling? Keep reading to find out.)

The cartoon, as it happens, landed in my inbox while I was away on holiday, trying – and failing – to get away from work. As I reflected on it in that specific context, what surprised me was realizing that I do bear a disproportionate mental load – not at home, but in my academic job.

The perception of men working in the academy remains different from the perception of women working in the academy, even now; men are more or less automatically perceived as “professorial”, while women are associated less directly with the solitary-genius-in-robes model that term has historically implied.

I want to be clear that I’m not saying here that women profs aren’t recognized as profs in their jobs; I’m saying that the term resonates differently when it’s attached to women, as when it’s attached to men.

Let’s call it the Professor Dumbledore vs Headmistress McGonagall effect:

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(Albus vs Minerva. “Professor” vs “Headmistress”. Spot the differences.)

Some evidence for this difference in perception comes from growing bodies of research into how women are perceived on course evaluations relative to their male peers (click here for a brief NPR article from 2016 summarizing recent research). Both male and female students tend to attach adjectives like “wise”, “passionate”, and “tough but fair” more often to men than to women. The evidence suggests that male profs don’t need to do anything differently from female profs in order to garner this response; in fact, assessment statistics show that even when women are objectively revealed to be more effective teachers, men often score more highly on that measure on course evaluations.

It’s not just students who feel this way, either. As the Council of Canadian Academies’ report reveals, “socialization, schemas, and stereotypes define social roles and expectations, and contribute to the lack of encouragement for girls to forge non-traditional paths. As a result, female students consistently report lower levels of self-confidence,” especially in the STEM disciplines (xvii). Women who go into research careers are making a mental leap – even today – away from gender convention. That’s a risk, and it requires compensations of all kinds.

Helpfully, however, convention lives in the creases, particularly in the “teaching” and “administration” aspects of the academic job. Teaching is traditionally a “pink collar” or “helping” profession, and it’s where a lot of academic women get stuck, especially when they are not considered, or do not consider themselves, to be “full professor” material. As Mary Ann Mason notes in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Women are most well represented at community colleges (both those with and without academic ranks) and least well represented at doctoral-level institutions. Women make up 50 percent of the faculty at community colleges, 41 percent at baccalaureate and master’s degree colleges, and 33 percent at doctoral-level universities. Most women are not obtaining jobs at the more prestigious and higher-paying research universities where they earned their degrees.

And women are greatly overrepresented below the tenure track in the low-paying, nontenured positions. Women make up 58 percent of instructors and 54 percent of lecturers, and hold 51 percent of unranked positions.

(My emphasis)

In the lower and middle ranks – where the research reveals many women are trapped – everyone teaches a full course load or more. The labour to teach even reasonably well is onerous, and a lot of it is not in-the-classroom work. It’s “mental load” labour: prep; marking; office hours; fielding emails; holding hands.

What’s more, teaching’s “mental load” for women also means always appearing as caring as humanly possible, in an effort to earn a “caring” student eval score at least as high as the senior male prof down the hall who doesn’t have to do half this kind of mental somersaulting in order to achieve the same results.

I know a heck of a lot of men who are adored, even idolized, by students of all backgrounds and genders. They are perfectly good teachers and decent colleagues, most of the time. But I know few female colleagues – generous to a fault, supportive of each other, damn committed teachers – who make the same kind of “professorial” impact.

By god, though, do the students ever line up at those women’s doors! Why? For global kinds of help and advice, reading of work in progress, career support. In loco parentus stuff. Time-consuming and energy-depleting stuff.

You know: women’s work.

I’ve had three separate cases of sexual assault reported to me in my office hours. I’ve had countless students in tears, usually because of struggles with mental health issues – not because of grades. I used to keep Kleenex on hand just in case.

And then there’s administration – and not the sexy, well-paid kind. Wow, do women ever over-invest in the admin labour our jobs demand! Could it be that we are very used – socialized, we might say – to bearing the administrative burden for others? Of course I’ve got a number of talented male colleagues who do exceptional administrative work, particularly at the “officer” level in my department, for which I’m hugely grateful; still, I can’t help but notice that the VAST majority of non-academic staff in my faculty are women. I’ve also lost track of the number of times I’ve been in an administrative role, where my job was to try to coax male committee members to do the job of committee member… and I ended up doing it myself, because, you know. Easier.

Look, I know, ok? Rampant sexism in the academy is not news, and, thankfully, we’re increasingly aware of it.

But making real change to women’s working conditions in the academy means taking seriously not only how often the conditions of academic labour neglect entirely women’s experiences of the “mental load” at home, but also how often those conditions actually reproduce the domestic conditions of “mental load” and call it academic labour. Not the kind that will get you accolades, prizes, and promotion, mind – not yet, anyway.

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On that note, I’m truly proud to report that on 1 July 2017 I was promoted to the rank of Full Professor at Western University, one of Canada’s leading doctoral-research schools. I’m unusual in this promotion: a comparatively young woman (I’m 42) who has achieved a top research rank just 12 years after my first academic appointment.

I did not apply for promotion based on a “second monograph”, the so-called “gold standard” for top-tier success in my field – I don’t have one, and, increasingly, I think I might never write one. Instead, I applied based on my record of collaborative labour: my editing work, which has been substantial and much-lauded, and my teaching work, which shone through in my file thanks to a dozen letters from former students, and a damn fat teaching dossier to boot.

Why am I telling you this? (Also: if I was a guy, would you ask? Just checking.)

I wanted my promotion case to argue that this kind of work – shared, supportive, and student-forward work by a woman – needs to be more than enough for significant promotion at research schools circa 2017, if we are serious about taking action toward gender parity in the academy. I wanted it to set a precedent; I hope it does. I’ll certainly be supporting, wholeheartedly, future women scholars coming up for promotion with similar files. (I’d like to invite anyone reading, who works in my field, to name me on their promotion files as a potential external examiner, btw.)

I know this post has been long – thanks for reading! In my next post I’ll share the anecdote that prompted the reflections above, as well as some ways we – men and women both – might combat the academy’s gendered mental load in our day to day actions this coming year.

Stay cool meanwhile,

Kim

Theatre and performance vs the “crisis” in the Humanities (warning: this post requires you to think about doing something!)

Friends, I am excited to share with you a call for papers I’ve created for the fantastic, UK-based journal Research in Drama Education.

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The issue I’m guest-editing will appear in August 2019; its purpose is to gather exciting, stimulating, but above all useful best practices from around the world that demonstrate how theatre and performance makers, scholars, teachers, and community partners are helping to rewrite what has become our “common sense” refrain: …that Humanities schools, faculties, and programs at our colleges and universities are being marginalized by business- and STEM-forward administrators and government pressures, and that there is nothing we can do about it but grouse and cry while the ship sinks.

I know this “common sense” state of affairs is not really the case – that it is, rather, another situation where we have all swallowed a load of depressing Kool-Aid, largely out of sheer bone-weariness. (Fighting endless battles simply to demonstrate one’s relevance has a tendency to make one rather tired, and longing for a drink.)

How do I know this? Because I also know too many people (friends and colleagues alike; friends of friends and colleagues of colleagues) who are busy doing something, right now, about it. And even sometimes succeeding.

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What this issue wants to know is exactly what that doing-something-about-it looks like. It wants to hear from those of us in higher education’s theatre and performance (and dance and music…) trenches, but it also wants to hear – very much wants to hear – from administrators who have insights to share.

Above all, it argues that theatre and performance programs have an obligation to be at the heart of the 21st century, “neoliberal” university, not at its periphery – and it wants to know how to make that claim a “common sense” reality.

There are a lot of ways to contribute to this issue – I’m inviting scholarly articles, shorter case study articles, as well as creative expressions, dialogues, and a variety of things that might be web-only friendly. We are fortunate that RiDE has the capacity to make this issue a cross-platform publication, and that its audience is helpfully international and very diverse.

Below, I’m reproducing the issue’s core research questions, as well as information about how to submit a proposal (due 1 October 2017).

I’m also including a link to the full CFP, on RiDE‘s website, here.

I know many of you will have seen this come across your desks already – if you could take a moment now to forward this on to anyone you’ve thought perhaps might like to see it, but hasn’t yet seen it, I’d be grateful!

Sometime between now and October I’ll do another post on the issue’s topic, which will feature some personal stories about how I ended up getting the RiDE gig and coming up with this particular idea. I’ll also think ahead there a bit there to an event I’m planning in London, UK, in November, with connections to the issue.

Until then, questions most welcome!

Solidarity,

Kim

Theatre + Performance vs “The Crisis in the Humanities”: Creative Pedagogies, Neoliberal Realities*

*Call for papers in full available here: crde-cfp-crisis-in-humanities-2q2017

Research questions

  • What initiatives are already underway to ready schools and departments of theatre and performance for survival within the neoliberal university?
  • How are these initiatives received by stakeholders (students, teachers, artists, administrators, community partners) both inside and outside of institutional contexts?
  • How essential is interdisciplinary collaboration to the survival of theatre and performance labour in the neoliberal university? What models exist for such (successful) collaboration?
  • How essential is community collaboration to the survival of theatre and performance labour in the neoliberal university? What models exist for such (successful) collaboration?
  • Within the initiatives and collaborations thus detailed, what room exists for creative, performance-driven critique of neoliberal structures? How is that room made? When and how does making such space fall short of goals?

Logistical Details

The issue will blend scholarly articles of approximately 6000 words with evidentiary documents of 1500-2000 words (brief case studies; module/course outlines; measurements gathered on behalf of initiatives; etc) and online materials. The latter may include recorded interviews, classroom or other performance clips, or creative data dissemination. The issue aims for a rich mix of scholarly discussion about the issues at hand, and practical, re-usable models and materials.

Contributions are welcomed from artists, teachers, and researchers, but also from administrators, students, community partners, Teaching and Learning Centre staffers, or more. (If you feel members of your team, or other officials at your university, might like to contribute independently or alongside you, please circulate this CFP to them!)

Collaboratively-authored works are very welcome.

Time frame

Please send proposals and/or descriptions of 300 words (for any of the above categories of contribution), along with a 150-word biography, to Kim Solga by 1 September 2017.

On performance and difference

Over the last few weeks I’ve re-blogged two performance reviews I wrote for Stratford Festival Reviews.com, each about a remarkable piece of work dealing with racial and cultural difference in a contemporary Canadian context. (Look here and here for more.) I wrote both of these reviews in the wake of having attended the engaging and provoking “Beyond Representation: Cultural Diversity as Theatrical Practice” symposium at Modern Times theatre company in Toronto, hosted by my friends and colleagues Natalie Alvarez and Ric Knowles.

What’s more, in the weeks since the event, and since my viewings and reviewings, I’ve noticed the word “diversity” and its cognates (“interculturalism”, “difference”, etc.) appearing with what seems like more than usual regularity in discussions about Toronto theatre, especially courtesy of the always compelling Intermission magazine.

Now, lest I seem to be suggesting anything else, let me be clear: diversity on stage has been part of our discussions about Canadian theatre and performance, its histories and its futures, for a good long time now. These discussions take a number of different forms – in, for example, recent issues of the industry cross-over publication Canadian Theatre Review (check out volume 165, “Equity in Theatre”) and the scholarly journal Theatre Research in Canada / Recherches théâtrales au Canada (last November’s issue is on performance and disability), in the ground-breaking “Beyond the Great White North” season at Factory Theatre, curated by A.D. Nina Lee Aquino, and in some of those aforementioned pieces (click here and here, for example) in Intermission, an online publication by and for artists first. My Canadian Drama class at Western has been focused on intercultural and multicultural performance practices since 2005; my inspiration for that class comes from Ric Knowles, who has pioneered new understandings of interculturalism in performance contexts around the world, let alone in Canada. His Theatre & Interculturalism is a primer in the field, and his work with artists of difference, and particularly Indigenous artists, as a dramaturg, mentor, and friend is well known and extremely well respected.

This stuff, in other words, ain’t new.

Which was the point precisely of the Modern Times event Natalie and Ric hosted, and which is the reason I wanted to share some of my reflections after having attended it. Because as Donna-Michelle St. Bernard, the larger-than-life artist / shit disturber who opened the symposium, has long since noted: diversity is A Good Thing, folks. Can we get over it now and do something freaking about it?

Well, yes and no: as Donna-Michelle, that cheeky trickster, herself well knows, recognizing the value of diversity is easy. PRACTICING diversity at the theatre, in a thoroughgoing and decolonizing way, is really fucking hard.

The former we seem to talk about endlessly (hence DM saying: shut up already!); the latter needs work. Cue the labour.

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Donna-Michelle St Bernard, in a photo by Denise Grant. DMSB is what I think about when I think about how awesome cultural difference actually is. I mean, the hair alone!

Nat and Ric’s symposium did some work indeed. It made me wonder about what I, as a white, female, normatively gendered scholar, can DO rather than SAY in order to ensure I’m acting toward a difference-oriented theatrical and scholarly practice in all the stuff I write and teach and talk about on the subway.  It made me think about my practice as a human being in a diverse workplace and a diverse classroom and a diverse city. It made me think outside of what I think about, usually, when I think about stuff to do with difference.

Herewith, then, just a few reflections from the symposium, linked up occasionally with reflections on the reviews I wrote in its wake. Warning: I’ll probably second guess myself a bit along the way. Not a bad thing.

***

If you were the centre of the universe, you could only see outward. All the way around. And someone would always be behind you. Who is that? You’d have to look. Constantly.

This was one of the moments with which Donna-Michelle began her symposium keynote (click the link above to watch the whole thing). I really love the spatial re-orientation it affects. Theatrical space is – yes, even with the advent of site-specific and post-dramatic work – often cartesian in its framing: there’s a centre, and there’s a periphery. Who is at the centre? For a while it was playwrights. Then artists. Then directors. Or some combination of these folks: The Creators. Then we decided audiences were, in fact, the most important artistic collaborators in the theatrical process. Cue a code switch: auditorium as centre of universe.

The trouble with all these things is that they assume the same relationship between centre and periphery: the latter looks at the former, while the former remains curiously “unmarked”, its authority assumed yet invisible. Donna-Michelle proposes something radical instead: the job of the centre is to look outward. Not because that’s the only way it can see itself (thanks, Jacques Lacan, but I’ve moved on), but because that is literally the only thing it can do. Its existence as central depends on an ethics of regard beyond itself. This has ALWAYS been true of the centre. It’s just that the centre rarely recognizes this about itself.

The really great thing about this formulation, for me, is that it applies to everybody, regardless of background, of colour. Of course, in an historically colonial nation like Canada it must apply more frequently to dominant culture subjects (typically white and non-disabled, among other markers), but at the end of the day it’s a formula for living a human life: just look behind you, already. Who’s there? What do you have to adjust – about your assumptions and the actions they precipitate – now that you see that person?

Quite apart from everything else, I find this a fantastic formula to offer students who might otherwise roll there eyes at discussions about race, gender, or ability difference in a class not dedicated explicitly to those issues. Our students aren’t assholes; they are just tired of certain kinds of discursive formulations (especially those that get too often mocked in the media). This formula lets us switch things up, while getting the same message across.

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***

The performance of authenticity is more common than authenticity. … Representation is 90% projection.

This is another nugget from Donna-Michelle’s keynote (hey, I’m a fangirl; get over it). But it also sums up one of the anxieties the name of this symposium tossed up. “Beyond Representation” seems, at first, a dick move: bare “representation” is nowhere near good enough on its own – see above, re diversity as Good Thing – so how do we even begin to get “beyond” it?

This is, for me, one of the hardest questions we face in Canadian theatre and performance right now, because it presses at the core of what the officially multicultural nation state has taught us to believe about who we are as a group of people with supposedly shared values and ideals. Canada as imagined community is based on the “Good Thing” premise; that means that to “represent” minority communities in Canada means to stage comfortable caricature more often than not. But as Donna-Michelle noted in conjunction with the above comments, for minority-identified actors, “to perform authenticity is to step into the role of the expected. And it is crushing.”

The move past staging the expected is very difficult indeed. In my review of her Little Pretty and the Exceptional, I argued that Anusree Roy missed the mark precisely because she gave into that expectation while also trying to tell a much more complex story about cultural identity, national identity, and cognitive difference, resulting in a piece of work that felt oddly split (and that provoked my theatre companion, who shares Roy’s cultural background, to proclaim the work stereotypical and dull).

Honestly, I fretted about that review for some time. I recognized that I was doing something that maybe wasn’t totally kosher: calling Roy out for not doing something that is actually near impossible in this cultural climate. My critique of her work might have merit – I’m not saying it doesn’t – but thinking back on it, I still fear that critique is in some measure unfair. It points out a problem with our system, not a problem with Roy’s work. But in a review of her play, Roy needs to take the hit.

I didn’t want her to. I wanted the system to take the hit.

But how do you review a system?

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Sugith Varughese & Farah Merani in Little Pretty and The Exceptional, by Anusree Roy. Photo by Joseph Michael

***

How do we use the “fact” of diversity to transform critical practice?

These words are Ric Knowles’, and they come from the symposium’s reviewing panel, which included Ric as well as representatives from Now (Glenn Sumi), the Toronto Star (Carly Maga), and the Globe and Mail (Kelly Nestruck). During that discussion, we debated a variety of ways we might better engage critically with work that happens across difference and via cultural clash and encounter, in the rehearsal room and studio as well as in the auditorium once the show is up. We came to no consensus, though for me two crucial, potential practices emerged.

First, stronger and better contextual awareness. As Ric noted, reviewers simply need to take the time to learn more about what they are seeing and why they are seeing it, especially when something happens on stage that seems not to “make sense” to a reviewer whose “sense” is so-called “common sense”.

Research, people. Ask questions.  Assume less; look behind you more. (Karen Fricker, Maga’s colleague at the Star‘s reviewing desk, has been working toward what she calls embedded criticism for that very reason, though of course that practice, like all embedding practices, comes with both strengths and limitations.)

It seems entirely easy enough. Except, of course, when: deadline.

So again, the system needs shifting more than any individual: asking reviewers to see a show and write the review *immediately afterward* is ridiculously counterproductive for the show, and for the reviewer, especially in an intercultural context where we just cannot, should not, assume intimate and immediate knowledge of one another’s contexts.

But what’s the alternative, at least until the blogosphere fully usurps the cred of the dailies and their digital downloads?

Honestly: I think more artists and academics should be writing reviews, and on a regular basis, and for a wide variety of venues, especially popular ones.

I say this not just because I *obviously* believe myself to be a flawless and amazing reviewer (see above: duh!); I say this because, people, we have the knowledge! And the salaries! And the access! We do the reading. We have the discussions. We know the folks who know the answers to why that thing happened on stage that made no sense at all to most of the straight, white, non-disabled folks in the audience. We get that maybe the show is not for us – and that probably that is actually A Very Good Thing.

When I went to see For Colored Girls… at Soulpepper Theatre, directed by the award-winning goddess Djanet Sears, I took my friend and colleague Naila Keleta Mae along with me. Naila had already seen the show and sat in on rehearsals; she has worked with a number of the artists on the production, and she had insights to share with me that I could not otherwise have learned.

She had also secured a review commission for the show, as I had, which meant that not only would we support each other’s reviewing labour in our shared discussion of the show over drinks afterward, but that we’d have the opportunity to present two different, differently informed, perspectives of the show in two different publication venues – perspectives that could then dialogue with each other in the public sphere, forming part of the production’s critical afterlife.

THIS is a reviewing practice I can get behind.

The ass-kicking cast of For Colored Girls… at Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto; the always and infinitely fierce Djanet Sears.

And yes, I know that we are all crazy busy as academics, and that we sometimes impose our own “learned” assumptions and expectations on the work we see, even and especially where “difference” is concerned. (Hey, you know what? We know better, and we should stop doing that already. LOOK. BEHIND. YOU.)

But we also, as Donna-Michelle pointed out emphatically at the end of her symposium keynote,

“have no idea how much more power [we] have than [we] are exercising.”

So, friends and colleagues: let’s read that line again, for good measure. Look behind us, already. And get writing.

Kim

 

Active learning in the graduate seminar room

This past autumn I taught my first graduate seminar in almost eight years; as a result of sabbaticals, career moves, and then my labour establishing a new undergraduate theatre studies program at Western, I had had neither the time nor the opportunity to teach graduate students (Brits: that’s postgrads to you) since summer 2009. I was excited to get back into the seminar room with smart MA and PhD candidates, but I was also a bit daunted.

I find graduate teaching a mixed blessing. On one hand: smart students, well read, self-selecting into a challenging program. We can expect them to be prepared; we can expect them to be keen; we can expect them to participate. On the other, though, there’s the whiff of imposter syndrome all around us in grad seminars: every student is eyeing every other student, wondering if they know enough, if they are smart enough. Showing off can ensue; oneupmanship happens whether students intend it to or not. Fraught dynamics emerge; and there I am, the prof who ALSO fears she doesn’t actually know enough to be teaching graduate students, caught in the middle, trying to keep the discussion on track.

(Imposter syndrome never goes away; you just learn to cope better with it. Sorry.)

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With years between me and my last graduate outing, I had some questions for my peers as I prepared the syllabus: how much reading is too much? Not enough? Are we still assigning One Seminar Presentation and One Final Essay, or have assessments evolved? In general the consensus was: 100 pages per week, give or take; seminar presentations always; one or two essays as you prefer.

The goal, as ever, was to make discussions in the room rich, but prep not too onerous. Grad seminars, the logic goes, should involve the prof and the class preparing the reading, and then coming to the room with questions and ideas to propel a discussion. Profs aren’t prepping lectures (or, most aren’t), and the onus is on the group to find useful things to say about each set of readings each week.

Pure, unadulterated active learning.

Except, well… maybe not. As I planned my new course (“Performance and the Global City”; please email me if you’d like a copy of the syllabus!) I spent a lot of time thinking back to my earlier graduate seminar experiences, both as a teacher and as a student. I realized that the traditional seminar model creates some barriers to access that reveal its limits as an active learning environment.

First of all, good discussions require a fair bit of curation; it’s not enough to come to class with a handful of talking points and/or questions for the room and assume everyone will be able to jump in and dig deep, just like that. (Quiet students will always struggle with the “so, what did we think?” opener, and, no, it’s not them, it’s us.)

Second, certain voices dominate class discussions because they have been trained by existing learning protocols to do so; those voices are comfortable with minimal prompting, and they aren’t always aware of how much space they are taking up. For profs keen to get a rousing discussion going around the seminar table, those voices are a godsend; we may complain to each other in the halls or over drinks about the students who dominate our discussions, but without the keeners who can kill airtime, our under-curated discussions can stall and leave us exposed.

Finally, can I just say that the traditional graduate seminar presentation is more often than not boring as heck? Does anyone actually enjoy listening to anyone else read a paper for 20 minutes at a go? What – other than how to write a clever paper and deliver a very dull conference presentation – do we imagine we are teaching our postgrads with this kind of assessment?

OK, so I know I’m being hard on tried and true models here, and if your graduate seminars run conventionally but very well then I’m really glad, and I would not want to stop you from carrying on with them. But the more I thought about the grad seminar status quo, the more I knew I didn’t want to do it again. So I hatched a new plan.

I decided to import a bunch of flipped-classroom active learning techniques from my undergraduate classes into my new graduate seminar.

This shift manifested in two key ways. First, student presentations were styled as peer teaching presentations, not research presentations. Every student was required to teach one article over the course of the term to the rest of the class, and students were required to work in pairs for this task. Further, I explicitly asked them not to create a lecture, but instead to frame the teach with an active learning exercise.

Here’s the brief for the peer teach I included in the syllabus:

PEER TEACHING EXERCISE

Once this term you will work in pairs to lead the class in an exploratory exercise based on one of our readings. The goal: to help you to try out different ways to connect students with challenging material. For that reason, I ask you not to prepare a lecture-style statement for this task; you should of course have thoughts about your reading you would like to draw out, but the point of this exercise is not to tell us what they are.

Here’s how the task will work:

  • By Wednesday at NOON of your week to teach, you will post to OWL a provocation (maybe a question, maybe not…) based on ONE of the readings for that week. Let Kim know in advance which reading you will focus on.
  • Your classmates will offer preliminary reflections on your provocation on OWL over the following 24 hours. You should read and note these reflections.

You will then prepare a learning exercise to help us explore your provocation.

There are lots of exercises to choose from; you might want to consult some research on “active learning” or the “flipped classroom” to help you out – the Teaching and Learning Centre at Weldon can help with this, or (of course!) you can have a chat with Kim to discuss some options. Your exercise need not be complicated, but it should be more than you simply asking everyone, “so, what did you think?”

When you come to class on Thursday, you will run your exercise, and then debrief it. Here, you can incorporate your classmates’ preliminary responses as much or as little as you feel will be productive.

You will have a total of 30 minutes for your teach. (NOTE: this is actually not a lot of time! Use it with care.)

Clear as mud? Don’t worry! Kim will model this task in our second week. If you’re still stuck, though, ask yourself this question: did a teacher ever do a really useful, cool thing in class that really stuck with you? What was that cool thing?

Second, not only did I model a variety of peer teaching exercises for the students in the second class of the term, in order to give them a concrete sense of how their own teaching sessions could work, but I continued to incorporate group-based and pairs-based learning exercises in my own teaching week to week in order to make those things normative in our seminar room.

We’d do think/pair/share work, we’d use “world cafe” or long table-style discussions, and one week we even debriefed our field trip to Detroit by creating team maps of the experience on flip chart paper, trying to draw connections between our on-the-ground experiences and the ideas conveyed by our readings about the city.

(Candid snaps of the students at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit – Sebastian, Lacey, Sharon, Emily and Robyn)

The students came along, gamely, for the ride – although they were understandably hesitant at first. I made a point of leaving my office door wide open to them as they prepared for their teaches, and after each teach I’d invite the presenters to come for a debrief, where we’d talk about what went well and what didn’t, and where they could be free to ask me all kinds of questions about active learning models.

Students consistently reported to me that they enjoyed the teaching exercise, found it unusual but productive; nevertheless, I couldn’t shake the feeling they were just humouring me. After all, grad seminars are supposed to be complex, serious learning environments… and we were mostly just having a good time. My imposter syndrome gurgled away in the pit of my stomach. Could they really be taking this seriously, getting as much out of it as they were getting out of the modernist theory and poetry seminar up the hall?

When my seminar evaluations landed in my email inbox last week, that gurgle erupted once more. Here was the moment of truth: What They Really Thought about our flipped seminar, all those small group discussions and messing about with coloured markers.

To my genuine surprise and utter delight, the evaluations universally praised the experience. I was astonished; students called our class a “refreshing and dynamic break” from the traditional model, a “comfortable and open learning environment” where everyone “could express their opinions and ideas without fear of judgement.” This one below is my favourite, because it tells me I achieved everything I had wanted to do, and also more than I’d hoped:

Through her use of active learning in her teaching practice, Kim fostered a deeply collaborative class environment. It was an environment where it felt safe to fail, which made it all the more generative – we were able to take risks, offer partial thoughts, and hash them out together.

I really appreciated that she encouraged using creative practices in our assignments, especially given the course material. Being able to engage in the practices that we were locating in our readings and field trips was a really valuable research method for me – that Kim gave us the latitude to work outside the boundaries of more traditional methods really enhanced my experience in this course.

Last Friday I had lunch with one of the students from the class, Emily Hoven. I told Emily about the evaluations and my surprise at their unwavering support for the flipped seminar model; I then asked her if she could talk to me a bit about what in particular she had found productive (or even not productive) about the model.

Her reply confirmed my own suspicions and chimed with the data on the evaluations.

She noted, first, that there’s a spirit of competition in graduate seminars that is not always helpful; everyone’s trying to say the next smart thing. That can make for brilliant, lively discussions, but can also make for intimidation and fear. In our class, she pointed out, we all worked together in a more equitable way; as a result, feelings of competitive angst lessened considerably.

Next, she pointed out that, as an undergraduate, she’d had a lot of experience with flipped classrooms, and thus our classroom felt both familiar and safe. Never mind that the model was unlike other grad seminars; it was like enough to active learning that many students are now experiencing at university that it provided a sense of grounding for students who might otherwise be struggling. She noted that likely this was not true for all the students in the class, but my guess is it’s also more true for many than we might think. As active learning becomes more common at the undergraduate level, we should consider its value as continuity at the graduate level, especially for Master’s students who are undergoing a sea change in their learning experiences and expectations as they enter grad school for the first time.

Finally, Emily’s comments, along with those on the evaluations, reminded me of what I found to be the most positive peer-teach outcome of all: it required everyone to renegotiate the vocal dynamic in our seminar space. Remember above, when I noted that certain voices tend to dominate seminars because they’ve been trained to do so by extant pedagogical models? In our classroom, new models driven by different learning dynamics meant quieter voices were invited actively into the learning space; shifting the room’s architecture (figuratively, but frequently literally, too, as we moved furniture to facilitate different kinds of group work) changed the default “permissions” of our seminar space, to productive effect.

In one of my favourite peer teaches of the term, this shift became glowingly evident as the most vocal person in the room and one of the quietest worked together; the former student actively placed herself in the peer teach’s supporting role in order to make space for her peer to take centre stage.

It was remarkable evidence of the power of genuine “active learning” in the graduate classroom to help everyone feel a little less like an imposter, and a little more like an empowered knowledge-maker.

Feeling grateful,

Kim