Learning from the un-schedule

Back in September I wrote about my cunning sabbatical plan to organize my life according to an “unschedule”: a daily planner that begins with life stuff, and fits work in around it (or leaves “free” time blank for work, should work wish to happen). I respond incredibly well to deadlines and boundaries, so this seemed the ideal solution to my perennial sabbatical problem: TOO MUCH UNSCHEDULED TIME (IN WHICH TO PANIC).

I’ve now been following, to greater or (mostly) lesser degrees each day, my unschedule for about 3 months; it’s therefore time for me to take stock, and to report on how it’s worked out.

Was it the raving success I was hoping for? Was it a total disaster?

As we might have predicted, it was a bit of both. Which is no bad thing!

First, the good news: I achieved pretty much exactly what I had intended the unschedule to help me achieve. I have a book due in February, of which I had written not one word when I created the unschedule back on 21 September. I now have just over 42,000 of the 50,000 words expected by my publisher, and the book is shaping up really well.

Next, the less good news: while the unschedule helped me to prioritize a very decent balance between “work” and “life”, as I noted in my last post “life” does not equal “rest”, and I did not manage to achieve much of the latter (so much so that my chronic joint problems have been acting up, and I’ve been at least as exhausted as usual much of the time).

That’s not reflective of a problem with my unschedule, though; in fact, it’s something the next version (see below) may help me address.

Third, the fine print: mostly the unschedule wasn’t something I was ever going to use as a schedule. It was, rather, a kind of self-initiated Rorschach Test. And in that, it succeeded brilliantly. Below, I’ll try to take stock of what it taught me about myself, and I’ll share my revised unschedule for winter.

To start, here’s a reminder of what my unschedule, circa late September 2017, looked like:

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The unschedule was never meant to be a test of my resolve; I did not create it in order to follow it to the letter. Quite the contrary: I made it in part to measure my aspirations for my sabbatical days against the reality that is my daily life. I expected the two not to line up perfectly, but I also hoped to learn from the comparison.

To that end, I decided, for the first 20 or so days on the unschedule (roughly, a month of workdays), to keep a brief daily diary with times and tasks noted. The two could then easily be compared to see where my time was actually going.

Here are a few photos of my notes from those early days:

Looking back on the notes, a few things stand out.

First, Stuff Happens. Moreover, the Stuff that Happens is probably not worth judging (because judging it won’t change it). So I got up later than scheduled many times; I AM NOT A MORNING PERSON, AT ALL. Trying to schedule myself to become a morning person is unlikely, at this stage in my life, to change me. Other mornings got taken up with personal things when the man I’m dating stayed over; I panicked about that a bit until I remembered that having a life (including a sex life!) ultimately makes work bearable. And, after a time, he and I settled into a routine where I would write and he would work, too, after breakfast; that solved it. Sometimes I had to travel, or there were meetings, or… or… or… Again: STUFF HAPPENS. What matters to me, looking back, is how I dealt with these intrusions into the hoped-for ideal, since the ideal wasn’t ever going to be fully achievable.

My diary entries also reveal that, despite getting up later than scheduled or having other things get in the way around my scheduled writing time, I still prioritized writing daily, for about 2 hours give or take. After the writing, more or less anything could happen: I’d penciled in workouts and/or house things, maybe more work for afternoons, but the reality, I found, was that after the writing had happened I felt a mix of satisfaction and relief that would then let me get on with my day, in whatever form it took.

Notably, I rarely missed walkies with Emma The Dog. This made her very happy. It also brought me joy, which I think is incredibly productive.

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(Emma on a woodland trail near our new home. She’s distracted by a squirrel, or something even tastier.)

I’m generally a very active person, and my original unschedule included a lot of workouts; the challenge, I found, was that my new living situation (I moved to a new city in August) necessitated me getting into fresh activity habits based on the resources around me. I can ride my bike anywhere, but not when the wind is blowing at 50kph – and it helps if I already know the route home, in case of emergency. I love to row, but with winter coming on I needed to find a reliable place for land training. There’s a yoga studio near my house, but I haven’t loved many of the classes I’ve tried there. I’ve been experimenting with stair climbing, since there’s a lot of that available free in my new neighbourhood. And I’ve been swimming more than I expected.

All of this means that I did not keep to my un-scheduled fitness plan, in part because of all the trial and error. The trade-off, however, was a lot of useful learning about my new surroundings, and some valuable time spent settling into my new place.

Taking stock of the patterns in my diary, one thing has become crystal clear: the ONLY thing that was essential for me every day was writing. I can’t tell you what a revelation this has been!

I have resisted for a long time the common advice given to academics to write every morning for an hour, to “pay yourself first”, just to sit down and do it. Staunchly, I  insisted that such a strategy would not work for me/that I didn’t need it/that my writing does not work that way/fill in any excuse here.

The truth, my activity log showed me, is that sitting down with only my computer (but no email!) for a modest but set amount of time each day is an incredibly productive way for me to write. Requiring myself to make the time to think and write, and thus to think by writing, meant my vision for the book evolved, deepened, and changed for the better as I went along.

Most importantly, after a good couple of hours’ writing, I always felt renewed and strengthened, much as I often do at the end of a good workout. This I found remarkable, surprising, and so valuable – so much so that writing will be at the heart of any “un-schedule” I make from now on.

I also learned one other very important thing about myself from my (predictable) failure to adhere to the letter of the unschedule. I learned that I over-schedule myself, no matter what I do.

If I have down time, rest time, I judge myself: MUST GET BACK TO SOME KIND OF WORK! This might be housework, work-work, or athletic work. I do not permit myself to just sit there with a cup of tea, staring out the window.

But why the hell not? If anything, the fact that – despite unschedule, and despite sabbatical – I am at least as tired as usual this December is indicative of the problem with this sort of thinking.

If I had rested more this past term, might I have been more “productive” in my work-work? Maybe. Truthfully, though, more productive was not what was needed: I objectively produced a hell of a lot of research-related stuff. Had I rested more, though, I suspect I might be better prepared, right now, both physically and emotionally for Winter 2018 – in which I will start commuting to my campus responsibilities in London, Ontario, and in which all manner of winter-related crap is bound to rain down (probably on the highway while I’m driving, among other places).

Rest is in itself productive! We know this – sort of. Culturally, we’re still learning this message; personally, I’ve realized that I need to trick myself into rest, because I am a type-A, professional, middle-aged North American woman and old habits die hard. That’s why my new, simplified, improved un-schedule contains Less Stuff, and more room to manoeuvre.

Kim's winter 2017 unschedule

You’ll note that there’s still something in every block of time (save two), but I’ve made the blocks larger and less specific on purpose. The point is: within that block, everything I’ve listed either has to happen (teaching) or is likely to get done (row, or yoga, or walkies – though only walkies is *truly* essential. Dog owners will understand).

The only other fixed thing, for me, is the writing: I’ve made it a reasonable amount on purpose, just one hour each morning of the week that I am not commuting to classes. I’m hoping thereby to maintain my good new writing practice, and to nurture its tangible benefits, while also freeing myself to move a bit more flexibly around other tasks (and hopefully give myself time for rest, too).

Have any of you tried the unschedule, or variations, since September? If you have, I’d love to know how it’s going. Leave a comment or shoot me an email.

And meanwhile, have a really, productively joyful holiday break!

Kim

 

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Rethinking “Work-Life Balance”

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Ah, end of term. The race to the end of Week 12; snagging some advent chocolate here, or a festive cocktail there, to help the marking go down. Dreaming of sugar plum dreams – dreaming of getting to stay in bed.

Of course, I know nothing about this. I have been on sabbatical.

Being on sabbatical is supposed to lead directly to a recalibration of work-life balance. Spending the majority of my days *not* working at my academic work, and yet still more or less achieving all of my academic work goals, means that I’m supposed to have spent the remainder of my time on this fanciful thing called “life” – and thus that I am meant to be rejuvenated, happier, more fulfilled.

Right.

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(Finding images for this post was like shooting fish in a barrel.)

What have I done this sabbatical? Well, as I’ll talk about in my next post, which will be an update on the “un-schedule” I made for myself in September, I’ve written 3/4 of a book for students. I’ve organized a small conference. I’ve vetted and accepted proposals for a special journal issue that will be coming out in 2019.

I’ve also moved house, renovated parts of said house, gotten used to a new community in a new city, traveled to England twice and Germany once, and worked at sustaining a new relationship. Note: these are all the “life” bits.

Sounds a lot like like work, though – doesn’t it?

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(Here I am enjoying melted cheese in a baguette in Konstanz, Germany. I can officially say that eating this was work. Tasty work.)

This revelation – that “life” is also “work”, and that this fact might pose a problem for the elusive thing we call “work-life balance” – had not occurred to me until about a week ago. That’s when I felt the tell-tale pinching in my right eye that indicates I’m about to suffer a spell of anterior uveitis (aka iritis, the inflammation of the iris joint).

I have an auto-immune condition called Ankylosing Spondylitis; don’t worry, I have terrific healthcare and it’s mostly fine (thanks, Canada!). But it gets active when I’m feeling unusual levels of stress. It manifests in my hip, my jaw, and my eye.

Early in November, I could barely open my mouth. What’s up? I thought. The TMJ isn’t usually a big deal! Where is this coming from?

Eventually the jaw pain subsided. Then my hip started to ache; for a couple of days I struggled to get up out of beds and chairs, and walking was tough. I blamed the shift in my workout schedule, what with the move and everything, and I blamed my new penchant for stair-climbing on the Niagara Escarpment, one of my new home town of Hamilton’s many outdoor pleasures.

But, after the hip pain passed and my jaw was back to normal, I began to notice that looking into the light hurt my eye. (I’ve felt this many times before – I carry the drugs with me.) The iritis typically arrives in times of significant stress. I was confused. I wasn’t stressed! I was ON SABBATICAL!

I looked at the date on the bottle of drops I’m currently carrying in case of iritis while traveling (I’m in England this week). I was sure my last bout had been this time last year. But: the prescription date said 27 April 2017.

What was happening in late April? I thought to myself. My term was over. Marking was complete. Sabbatical was just ahead!

And: I had just started house-hunting.

The penny dropped.

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Where does stress come from? For me, it comes from any labour I need to do, or expect myself to do, or am expected by others to do, that pressurizes me in some way. If I do not do this thing I will let someone down. I will let myself down. If X is not done now, Y cannot get done next. Things to do, work ahead.

“Work” in this case is a pressure born of expectations internal as well as external, and it does not actually distinguish between “paid” and “unpaid”, “professional” and “personal”. Ask every woman who has ever worked at home for free, keeping a house and raising kids. Not stressful? Not pressurizing? Not labour? NO WAY.

As a feminist scholar and a cultural materialist, I am very well aware that what has historically been called “women’s work” – the work of caring for lives, maintaining a life, for self and others – is every inch “work”, though it is often disregarded as “just life”, which is one key way that patriarchy systemically denigrates domestic and social labour as bon-bon eating privilege.

(FYI, I’d like to invite everyone who has ever had someone else maintain their home comforts for them to give home-work a shot for a week or so and see how many bon-bons you manage to swallow.)

So, anyway, as a clever feminist, you’d think I’d have cottoned on, long ago, to the fact that I was not actually working less on my sabbatical, that I was not just busy recalibrating and bouncing through the daisies.

Nope. I was actually working more.

Here, let me revisit again the things I have done on my sabbatical. This time, I’m going to list everything, all mixed together, that has been a source of pressure or anxiety – a source of physical, intellectual, OR emotional “work” – rather than distinguishing between “paid job” and “just life”. Suddenly things get both scarier, and clearer.

On Kim’s sabbatical she:

  • wrote most of book (37,000 of 50,000 words)
  • bought house in Hamilton, ON
  • sold house in London, ON
  • organized conference (with four other amazing humans who read this blog – thanks friends at Central!!)
  • moved out of house in London, ON
  • moved into house in Hamilton, ON
  • read a whack of article abstracts for Research in Drama Education
  • had new house painted up and down
  • prepared new issue of journal I edit (Theatre Research in Canada)
  • had new bathroom, carpets, skylight installed in new house
  • helped dog manage moving stress
  • discovered asbestos in new house, coped
  • peer-reviewed book manuscript for a major university press
  • peer-reviewed applications for fellowships at a European university
  • collected non-driving new boyfriend from his house 30km away many times
  • coped with having new boyfriend in house often, which is wonderful but also a source of disruption, of course
  • wrote a bunch of reference letters for students as well as peers
  • answered about a thousand emails
  • met about 25 new neighbours (all of them splendid – yay! – but small talk is hard work)
  • found new cycling club and new rowing club, tried them out, joined
  • forwarded a bunch of emails not meant for me because SABBATICAL
  • cooked a Thanksgiving turkey.

I know there are things I’m forgetting. But even so, oh my, what a lot of work I’ve been doing! And when you factor in the part where I’ve only actually been considering about 1/3 of the above list as actual “work” in my mind, and therefore shaming myself for being so tired and anxious all the time, it’s no wonder my lovely AS has gone into overdrive and knocked me sideways since early November.

I’ve been mulling all of this stuff over for the last week or so. I began by thinking to myself, “work-life balance” is total bullshit! But then I realized that what we are up against here is not a problem concept, but rather problem language. Words actualize our expectations; they caused a problem for me this autumn because I failed to see the “work” in “life” and therefore was very hard on myself.

What I really needed was not more “life”. What I needed was more REST. A lot of it.

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What would it mean for us to recalibrate our expectations around work-life balance by renaming it “work-rest balance”? I don’t mean here to suggest that there aren’t many among us who could not do with a lot less time at the office, and a lot more time with spouse and kids and cooking and so forth, however much work those things might also bring with them. And I know for some of us the work of things like cooking and vacuuming is actually quite pleasurable. (In fact, I relax by ironing. NO REALLY.)

But we can’t stop there, because playing with your kids is ALSO tiring, right? And dressing them, feeding them, and taking them to soccer most certainly is. It’s essential we get enough rest, outside of all the work commitments in our busy work-lives; otherwise we will not be at our best, and we will not feel good in our bodies, and we will not feel good in our hearts.

This is a lesson I first learned from a cycling coach years ago, and it’s a lesson that I think applies universally. You need to rest your body and your mind in order to improve your performance next time. In order to sustain the gains you make, and make more gains, you need a lot of down time. It’s part of the cycle of renewal that leads to doing the good work we all want to do more of at home and at the office and out in the world.

It’s almost the winter break, for most of us. Let’s pledge to rest for real. Take stock of the work you need to do over the holiday – the home-work as well as the paid-work – and then set aside times for rest that equal, as much as possible, the time needed for the tasks on your plate.

This is the true purpose of the un-schedule, I suspect. More on that next week.

Warmest wishes,

Kim

How do you solve a problem like Kevin Spacey?

I’ve been watching the Weinstein shit-show from the sidelines with the same mix of excitement and horror as the next woman. I’ve not really known what to say; the constant stream of revelations represent, for me, not the watershed of the moment (although it is – knock wood – very much a watershed), but the depth and breadth of the problem we all knew was about but couldn’t constellate fully until now.

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I am very, very lucky: I have no instances of sexual abuse in my past. But let me tell you, I’ve been both gobsmacked and completely unsurprised at the morning’s (every morning’s) headlines.

Because, like every human female, I have a lot of first-hand experience of how patriarchy grants men the impression that they are entitled to take whatever they want, while it grants women – as well as non-normative, queer, and non-cis-gendered others – the keen sense that they should watch their backs.

Let me stress here that this is no one person’s fault – although being a fecking bastard is ABSOLUTELY the fault of the arseholic guys being written up every day in the dailies.

Nope, this is not a post about ass-hatted individual actions.

This is a post about a system. And it’s a post about the theatre.

Aside from a complicated (and contradictory) mix of horror and relief, the number one thing I feel about this particular moment in history is this:

Thank god I am not teaching right now, and don’t have to talk about this with my students.

Don’t get me wrong: I secretly love nothing more than throwing the syllabus away on a news-damp morning and chatting the real stuff out with the gang in the room. But this occasion feels really heavy, really loaded. I can imagine some very tense conversations, some really challenging mediating. I can imagine the emotional toll.

But as I’ve been wading through all of this, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I might say (maybe, next term, will have every opportunity to say) in the classroom about the issues raised by this extraordinary moment. And, thankfully, I’ve been granted a gift by two remarkable pieces of theatre I’ve seen in the past few weeks in Toronto – both of which take up, at depth, the issues behind the issues we’ve been reading about in the headlines.

This is a post about them – and about the power of live theatre to communicate aspects of Weinstein-gate that the print and online media can barely touch.

Asking For It (created by millennial Ellie Moon and produced by Nightwood Theatre at Streetcar Crowsnest in October) is “documentary” theatre that begins with the Jian Ghomeshi revelations and goes on to explore Moon’s and her peers’ experiences with the challenges of consent. Moon interviewed scores of people (mostly known, some family, lots of friends) for the show, and their stories make up the content, voiced by four actors. In the first two thirds of the piece, performers Christine Horne, Steven McCarthy, Moon, and Jaa Smith-Johnson sit at a square table speaking the interview transcripts from binders into microphones, capturing the vocal intonation and gestures of the words’ owners. In the second half, they act out a handful of telling encounters Moon had during the interview process.

The show begins with Ellie (the “character” – the limits of autobiography aren’t totally transparent here) saying she wanted to know more, in the wake of Ghomeshi, about how consent works in practice: how we navigate it and how we all fall down around it. The show ends with her revealing that what she really wanted to figure out is why she seems to have a lot of rough sexual encounters, perhaps even want them, and what that says about her as a sexual agent, a feminist, and a human being.

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Daughter is a bouffant show (in other words: expert clowning) that masquerades as stand-up comedy; the theme is, “wow, it’s so hard, man, to raise a little girl today!” Performer Adam Lazarus (who is the show’s co-creator, along with Jiv Parasram and Melissa D’Agostino, as well as director Ann-Marie Kerr) comes out as “Adam” (the character), all proud dad, wearing his 6-year-old’s butterfly wings and dancing to her playlist.

We love him more or less instantly, and we’re with him – until we can’t be with him anymore. By the end he has revealed himself to be a total jackass who wishes women would just go back to being simpler, the “tits” of his porn collection instead of the “cunts” of the real world. And though he admits to loving his daughter insanely, he also admits to thinking life would be simpler without her.

Toxic masculinity has by this point eaten the show, eaten him – and fucked his audience up completely.

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These two pieces share as much in common as they don’t. Both, however, take issue with a culture that has created a pair of poisoned structures around sex and gender, and is now having to wrestle with their awkward, systemic dismantling.

For Moon, the problem of consent is BOTH that no means no, and that’s that, AND that consent is way, way pricklier and more confusing in practice than one endgame phrase conveys, for most well-intentioned humans, most of the time. For Lazarus, the problem is that love for his wife and daughter drives his character, but the tools he uses to shape his actions toward them were forged in a perilous melange of patriarchy-as-normal and extraordinary access to violent online pornography. He is also – as my colleague Karen Fricker pointed out to me over drinks the other day – apparently without family, beyond the women he perceives himself as responsible towards, and therefore without any (at least somewhat) objective mentorship and support as he flails into chaos.

One of the things that struck me right away about both of these shows was the way they were set up, spatially. (I’m thinking a tonne about space right now, because I’m deep into writing a book for students about theories of space, place, and meaning at the theatre in the twentieth century.)

When I entered the stage area of Asking For It, immediately I felt like a citizen, less like an observer. The space at Streetcar was configured as though for a debate, with banks of audience members facing each other, and more around the sides of the playing space. When the actors entered, they did so from our world: they came into the auditorium as the doors shut, and entered from the side of one of the rakes.

The message? We are all together in what is going to be a discussion, a series of provocations for us all to reckon with in a shared way.

Daughter was configured differently – though with equal critical aplomb. I entered a normal auditorium rake of seating, facing the stage. Shortly Adam appeared on that stage, dancing and flitting in the decorative wings. He was disarming, but also very clearly the (only) performer we were meant to watch. The configuration screamed: “stand-up comic! Also good dad!”

I admit I found Adam quite funny at first, but something about the character bothered me almost from the start. I felt like he had a gift for making everything – his daughter’s musical tastes; his wife’s pregnancy and difficult labour – completely about him. I remember thinking to myself, as he acted out (to hilarious and also astonished effect) his wife’s incredibly painful labour with their little girl: “does this guy really think it’s ok to make his loved one’s physical trauma about him?”

Turns out that question was, actually, the whole point.

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With Asking For It, my experience was different – more cozy, and more personal. (I attribute this to Ellie’s femininity, as well as to some other experiences we shared, though we do not know each other. Similarity breeds patriotism – it really does.) Still, I found remarkable the show’s ability simultaneously to disarm me, and to put pressure on questions of extraordinary significance for me.

A case in point arrives in the second part of the show, when Moon and Horne re-create a conversation on a bus between Ellie and a friend with whom she’s had a boozy dinner, as part of the interview project. The friend notes that Ellie needs to step outside her comfort zone and interview strangers if her project is to have any significance. Push comes to shove, and Ellie approaches a man at the other end of the bus, brandishing her iPhone. She says something like: hey, hi, sorry to bother you. I’m doing interviews about peoples’ experiences of consent. Could I ask you some questions about how you experience consent, and navigate its challenges?

The guy is not interested. Nor is he sympathetic. He takes a totally understandable, very frustrated, position. He says something like: if I had approached YOU on this bus, what would you have thought? You admit you’re a bit tipsy, and you’re asking me about consent, asking me to talk into your phone, for some “project”; how would you feel in my position?

God, do we feel for this guy.

Until Ellie says, bluntly but quietly:

But: I ASKED you.

Adam means the very best – but his experience of love, care, and sex was forged in the crucible of brutal online rape culture. He’s been taught male entitlement in the womb, and the internet has reinforced his genital privilege.

He thinks EVERYTHING is about him. When it’s not, he freaks out – he actually does not know what to do.

So he hits people – including his friends, and his daughter.

Ellie wants answers: why is this CBC douchebag’s inappropriate and possibly criminal behaviour getting to me so much? What’s consent, and what’s crossing the line? Why do I sometimes want to cross the line myself?

Can I be a feminist and cross the line?

In the process, she meets a not insignificant number of people who think she’s being kind of a feminazi, or who think they are feminist allies, except they actually really aren’t.

They want stuff, and they’ve been taught to take stuff, and even though they want to be the most stand-up men imaginable, that training of wanting and taking stuff is deep, and it’s engrained.

I’ve thought about both of these two remarkable productions an awful lot in the last four weeks. It’s not lost on me that Moon’s piece is comprised of interview material – other peoples’ voices, however mediated by her expert dramaturgy – while Lazarus and his co-creators have deliberately built a show that demonstrates how powerful, seductive, and ultimately toxic a single, virtuosic, male voice can be, when offered as funny and chummy and bro-ey.

Until it makes you kind of literally feel sick. (I literally felt sick, by the end of Daughter.)

Toxic masculinity is a formation driven by parallel but totally contradictory assumptions: that men should be upstanding, good guys with a fair amount of feminist sensibility, but that they continue to deserve to be number one in the equation in all circumstances – because that’s what patriarchy teaches straight cis-men, full stop, OR ELSE. The end result of this messed up formula is easy to guess.

Moon’s character isn’t without selfishness, without problems. But the show constructed around her is polyvocal, and works actively to find others’ voices, to honour them, and to discover her own problems and challenges through the revelations they provide.

Daughter avoids polyvocality – deliberately – because Adam isn’t capable of admitting others into his worldview in a real and meaningful way.

Dismantling this logic – the logic of toxic masculinity – is the work ahead, or else. The point of both of these productions is that patriarchs aren’t always easily visible, but that they are always conditioned by the poisoned binaries of gender vs gender. Because the system under which we labour – in which men come first, have always come first, and anything else is an “accommodation”, even now – is entrenched, and dismantling that system is not just about deciding to be a good guy, or an easy-going girl.

It’s much harder than that. And it requires all of our labour. Together.

Kim

 

 

 

Who decides?

I know it’s autumn, because lots of great theatre has been happening around me. I was recently in Big London and saw the hands-up-incredible (student!) production The Fall, as well as the incredibly moving The Unknown Island (which my colleague Dan Rebellato and I discuss in an upcoming episode of his podcast, Stage Directions – stay tuned for that one). Back home in Ontario I caught The Komagata Maru Incident at the Stratford Festival, thought-provokingly directed by Keira Loughran, and, last Sunday, Other Side of the Game by Amanda Parris, directed by Nigel Shawn Williams in an Obsidian Theatre/Cahoots Theatre co-production.

These last two shows were remarkable for me in the way they normalized the practice of diversity on stage – something I’ve been thinking a lot about since the “Post-Marginal” symposium I attended back in April (read my thoughts on that event here).

Canadians are used to “diversity” as a brand – part of the hip and multicultural, Justin-fronted salad-bowl nation. Yay Canada! Except maybe less yay Canada if you are, you know, a visible, ethnic, or other minority (including those who identify as disabled) and are constantly on the receiving end of subtle or not-so-subtle discrimination, well-meaning but superficial curiosity that borders on harassment, or, in more cases than we care to acknowledge, gruesome racial profiling.

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Justin hearts diversity. But it’s really not that easy, people.

All the more reason to get over talking about diversity as “a good thing” (says the brilliant Donna-Michelle St Bernard, someone I never tire of quoting), and to start thinking about it as a practice – an artistic practice, an intellectual practice, a pedagogical practice, and a practice of ordinary citizenship.

But how do we do that, really do that?

How can artists, scholars, and teachers model diversity-as-practice for others, as a necessary public good?

These two shows struck me as just such models. But then they also, inevitably, got me fretting about how to talk about them effectively as such. To communicate this modelling of diversity-in-practice as central to what they do, accomplish, offer to the public sphere.

That’s separate, a very separate, issue from whether or not they are any “good” as pieces of theatre.

[And btw, I think they both really are.]

This is all a slightly roundabout way of saying that these two productions got me fretting about theatre reviews – and in particular about the kinds of power reviewers wield, for better and sometimes for worse, as they more or less just do their jobs.

Reviewing is hard; I know this from personal experience. It’s a huge responsibility, and the reviewers I know (including for the major Toronto dailies) take that responsibility very seriously indeed.

But reviews as a genre embed some big problems. For me, the largest one is this: they are required to level judgement every time, but they are not typically flexible enough to unpack the question that ghosts that very quotidian act of judgement:

Who has the authority to decide what is “good” theatre?

What are our criteria, and why?

I was really upset to read the reviews for Komagata Maru Incident. Some of them very correctly pointed out that the play itself – which was written decades ago, and is about a boat full of Sikh migrants turned away from the shores of British Columbia in 1914 – comes from a settler perspective (that of white playwright Sharon Pollock), and lacks the capacity in its dramaturgical structure to represent refugee experience in a thoroughgoing way. Others, however, were unnecessarily rough on Loughran and her team. One was truly mean, and bordered, in my opinion, on an abuse of the reviewer’s power.

Why did these harsh reviews drive me around the bend? Because what Loughran had done in her direction of Pollock’s play was infuse it with an ethos of inclusivity and diversity, in an effort to decolonize the problematic script.

Quelemia Sparrow in The Komagata Maru Incident, Stratford, 2017

The production was far from perfect, in lots of ways the reviews captured. But it was also incredibly important as a piece of public engagement – and this the reviews either downplayed or missed.

Loughran’s cast were, in the vast majority, actors of colour. Her emcee/narrator figure was the stunningly talented Musqueam artist Quelemia Sparrow, whose evocative physicality contributed to a useful distancing of the play’s central voice of authority from its governing settler imagination. Sparrow played the role as a “traditional” (read “imaginary”) Indian figure overtly costumed as a British officer; the only authority she therefore inhabited was performative, the ability to talk herself into authority – as all imperialists do. (There’s a quite good reflection piece on this casting choice in the London Free Press; click here to take a look.)

The “real” officer figure in the play, the Immigration Department’s Hopkinson, was embodied with studied, well judged awkwardness by Omar Alex Khan, who is also not white and not British; as he and Sparrow interacted (she inhabiting the role of his superiors in these meetings) I saw and heard “Britishness” as an effect of settler colonialism, loud and clear.

Meanwhile, the most moving relationship in the play developed between Diana Tso and Jasmine Chen playing ambitious immigrant women in a Vancouver brothel. There were moments when I wondered if Chen, Tso, and Loughran had layered lesbian desire into these portrayals, and I was grateful for the prompt to think differently about what could otherwise seem conventionally sexualized Asian female characters.

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Diana Tso, Jasmine Chen, and Omar Alex Khan in The Komagata Maru Incident, 2017

In other words, I saw a lot that was rich and instructive and worth talking about in this show. Stuff that the reviews were not able, given their generic constraints, to capture.

Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago, when my friend Keith Tomasek, who edits Stratford Festival Reviews, asked me to review Other Side of the Game, which is about Black lives, and in particular Black women’s lives, historical and contemporary, in Toronto. (And yup, that eponymous reference to the Erykah Badu song of the same name is both intentional and quite perfect.) I recently reviewed For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf for Keith, so Other Side seemed a nice match. When time came to book the tickets I asked, unwittingly, for a preview show (it fit my schedule); Keith then told me I should skip the review (previews are previews for a reason, people) and write a “think piece” about the show instead.

This was totally accidental and yet a perfect gift; I realized after seeing the production that I could do more with/for/alongside what Parris, Williams, and their creative team have done by skipping the inevitable judgement part and reviewing, instead, the process by which we judge theatre in salad-bowl Toronto in 2017. I hope along the way I captured a bit of the diversity-in-practice I saw on stage and caught from Parris’s and Williams’s program notes, as well as from my research.

 

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The gorgeous playbill cover for Other Side of the Game

But you tell me; I welcome your thoughts. Please click through to SFR‘s site here to read my article, and feel free to leave comments in that space or this one.

Certainly, I’ll be aiming to lift more work like this, in this way, up to our view in future “review” commissions. I’ve just seen the superb Asking For It by Ellie Moon at Crow’s Theatre, which could not be more timely in its verbatim excavation of how we talk about consent. It’s a teaching tool if ever there was one: rigorous in its exploration of sexual ambivalence and awkwardness, which makes it, frankly, ideal as a model for figuring out how to navigate the challenging waters of talking to and with young people about sexual safety, comfort, and pleasure. Look forward to a post on that very soon.

Kim

Tired already? Let Them Teach Each Other! (Trust me. It will be good for you.)

It’s the first week of October, so no denying it any more: school’s back in session. Shit has gotten real.

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I know I’m in the fortunate chair this term, on sabbatical. (Nope, I don’t plan to stop mentioning it anytime soon. Sorry!)

But that doesn’t stop me feeling the autumn vibe through friends, neighbours’ kids, and through the growing chill in the air. Which is why, when the latest Tomorrow’s Professor post, on encouraging students to teach each other, rolled across my desk Monday afternoon, I couldn’t help but notice how ideal it is for just this moment in the term – when stress levels are rising, the thick of the marking and the prep is looming, and the chaos of midterms is starting to glance over the parapet.

The author of this particular post, “Asking Students to Teach: Gardening in the Jungle,” is Tim Murphey, who teaches in the English Department at Kanda University in Japan. It comes from his chapter in the book Innovative Practices in Language Teacher Education (Springer, 2017).

It’s normal for me to get inspired by TP posts throughout the academic year, but it’s not typical for me to base an entire post of my own around one. In this case I’m making an exception, though, because Murphey’s insights and evidence from his teaching experiments echo my own, very positive, anecdotal experiences with different forms of peer teaching in theatre and performance studies classrooms.

I’ve long felt peer teaching to be an essential means of activating deep student learning, especially when it comes to applying and extending complicated theoretical concepts. Put bluntly, students learn way better when they have to explain stuff clearly to each other; it means they have to internalize, vocalize, share, and collaborate – even if they kind of hate doing it in the moment. (And of course they do. Sitting at the back and sort of listening to the prof while actively cruising Facebook or Snapchatting with friends is way easier, duh.)

Murphey’s research concurs with this assessment of peer teaching’s impact on student outcomes, but his article also notes more, and deeper, benefits.

First, he talks about how valuable peer teaching can be for teachers, both in terms of saving us time AND in terms of making us better at our jobs.

Second (and throughout, actually), he focuses on how important the practice of peer teaching is as an ethical, and a democratic, practice – for students, but also for faculty. Everyone benefits, he argues, when we share the hard work of making sense of our world, together.

Which also feels crazy timely to me, ya know?

Herewith, then, a bit more from Murphey, and me, on each of these terrific ideas.

1. Peer teaching helps teachers teach better. It teaches us to give up a bit of control, and to get comfortable with the idea that maybe we don’t know everything and that’s ok. It also encourages us to reduce over-prep and spend our teaching time more wisely – working ideas through in the classroom, in the moment.

Just in time for early October, Murphey opens his introduction with this slightly painful truth:

Too often first time teachers, and even many experienced teachers, work much too hard preparing too much material for their classes to fill the allotted time. I myself confess to over-preparing and planning too many activities and materials.

I’ve also overprepped for years. (I call it “prep creep“.) Worse, I’ve been actively working NOT to over-prep for years, and yet, still, there’s that voice in my head. That voice that says…

You’re going to get to the end of the prep and have no more to say and there will be 10 minutes to go and everyone will look at you and know you suck and are an imposter.

Friends, that voice is wrong. It is an asshole, that voice. Total douchebag.

First, under no circumstances will you ever run out of stuff to say. I’m pretty sure that you got your degrees because you like to talk about your research and stuff, right?

Second – and this is The Great Paradox of Teaching – the more you write stuff down to say it, the easier it is to *actually* run out of stuff to say. The more activities you program for your active classroom, the more rushed everyone will likely feel. You will be anxious. The students will become cross and confused.

Nobody will be happier, or will have learned more, because of the excess stuff on your pages.

Here’s where peer teaching is a genius short-cut to help us get in the habit of more classroom improv, less over-prep. Yes, of course, helping students learn how to teach each other well takes careful set-up, and regular practice. You need to decide what the students will work on figuring out together, and you’ll have to give some thought to how they will get from point A to point B. You’ll need to offer some guidance along the way.

But a lot of that guidance will happen in the moment, and will be dependent on what the students say, and what they find they need as they unpick the problem you’ve set for them. You can’t prep for that; what you need is to develop confidence in your role as a guide. That takes practice in real time, in front of anxious or bored or anticipatory faces. It’s risky. It means being willing to mess up quite a bit. But it gets better and easier with time – it really, really does.

We might think it’s our job to stand up and spit up the knowledge, but that’s a ruse; in fact, our job is to be the expert learner in the room, not the person who has completed the journey of learning.

Which is, of course, the other reason peer teaching is so worthwhile: because it reminds us that we, too, are always on that journey with our students.

2. Peer teaching is just basic democracy. It’s sharing the knowledge and the challenges knowledge poses. It’s getting to the bottom of complicated things.

I don’t know about you, but as I read the headlines these days, I mostly think to myself: these skills, the ones that teach you about not being afraid to think hard, and to confront things that do not make sense, and to talk to other human beings about those things, and to work toward some kind of provisional answers, and then to toss them out and try again, just as hard and without losing heart…

… these skills are the only skills that matter right now.

Murphey quotes from Lee Shulman’s book Teaching as Community Property: Essays on Higher Education (2004, pp 36-7) in his epigraph, and I’ll rehearse the quotation here because it’s remarkable in its clarity and insight on the public and ethical and democratic value of shared teaching:

Learning is least useful when it is private and hidden; it is most powerful when it becomes public and communal. Learning flourishes when we take what we think we know and offer it as community property among fellow learners so that it can be tested, examined, challenged, and improved before we internalize it.

Shulman’s framing of learning as property is exceptionally timely, as the endgame of neoliberal consumption practices loom, warlike, into view. Knowledge can’t be owned; it must be shared. When we try to own insight we produce tyranny, and tyranny is the enemy of further learning, of the freedom to debate, discuss, and disagree.

The only way we can help our students understand this is to share the process of making knowledge with them, again and again, messy though that process might be. We need to model knowledge-sharing practices in our classrooms, urgently, precisely because they seem so very far away these days, when we open Twitter, or click the news links in our Facebook feeds.

And then, once we’ve fumbled through the peer teach, and hit all the roadblocks, and struggled to find the answers, we need to talk with our students about why the messiness of sharing knowledge is a social good, and not a thing to be loathed and feared.

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My sincere thanks to Tim Murphey for inspiring this post with a very compelling article. Please follow the links embedded above to purchase the two books referenced here, either for yourself or for your school’s library.

Meanwhile, if you use peer teaching practices in your classrooms I’d love to hear about them! Please share in the comments – models are always very welcome.

Kim