On being a Canadian Scholar in the British Academy

I’m back. On 20 June 2012 I left Western University, and Canada, for the Drama department at Queen Mary, University of London; on 17August I arrived back in little London, Ontario (also affectionately known as “The Faux”), and to the new Theatre Studies program at Western. (Click here to read a bit about us.) After 26 months in the UK it was a hard move to make; I was heartbroken to leave my brilliant colleagues at QM, and sadder still to say goodbye to my husband and dog (who are still in south London, keeping the home fires burning). But there’s no doubt about it – life as an academic is far better in Canada than it is in the UK, at least from where I’m sitting, on a tenure track post at a major research school. (I’m very well aware there are fewer and fewer of the former, and that the future of the latter is in constant flux under the current federal Canadian government; those issues will have to wait for another time.) So returning home has been hard, but it’s also been a relief.

My time in the UK academy was a paradox, a constant negotiation: at turns exhilarating and unbearably frustrating. I’ve written before on this blog about the stupidity of the REF, and about the waste that so much academic administration makes, both times from within the UK system and (negatively) inspired by it; today, though, I’d like to reflect on what I learned in the UK, from these very negatives, and from the relative calm of the other side of the ocean.

As the new term at Western has gotten underway, in the last couple of weeks I’ve found myself talking a lot, and thinking even more, about where I’ve just come from. I’ve told the (complicated) story of my time at Queen Mary over and over again to my colleagues here, and I’ve heard from them over and over again how sorry/how glad I must be now to be home. In the process, I’ve realised that a lot of the things that made me utterly crazy while inside the UK system are actually profoundly instructive, even inspiring for me now: that while they made my life difficult in situ, from here they look like teachable moments.

My goal in this post, then, isn’t to kvetch post-hoc about everything that sucked over yonder; aside from being predictable and boring, that wouldn’t be very useful – nor very accurate. Instead, I want to talk about how some of the challenges that I encountered in the UK academy offer valuable lessons for those of us still very fortunate to work in a university environment where research time is protected above all, where teaching is valued and supported well, and where the administrative load is either kept to a minimum or offset by significant teaching relief and/or dedicated research leaves. I wouldn’t have guessed, six months ago, that I might be writing a blog post about (for example) what the REF gifted us, as well as about what it stole from us, but there you go: breathing room, and a bit of peace and quiet, can heal and regenerate in unexpected ways.

So, herewith, three phoenixes from the UK academic ashes.

1. Lots of administrative duties are stupid and time-wasting. A number of them are absolutely not. 

Academics I know fear administrative workload creep for very good reasons. The UK government, as I’ve argued before, has gotten quite a lot of traction with its constant check, monitor and measure tactics, making teachers and scholars far, far too tired to fight the really big fights properly. The Harper government here in Canada is not so far behind. But for every box I ticked and student absence I logged at QM while slowly dying inside, I also learned that there can be real value in things like second marking policies, designed to ensure students receive a fair, agreed-upon grade for large pieces of work, and pastoral care schemes, designed to save vulnerable students from attrition at crucial times in their undergraduate or graduate careers.

Now don’t get me wrong, especially if you’re reading this from my side of the pond: I’m not suggesting we start marking each other’s marking on an intensively structured basis as UK teachers do, and I’m definitely not suggesting universities mandate that we take student attendance (if yours does, I’m truly sorry). Second marking, for those who don’t know, is the practice of “check” marking other colleagues’ students’ work; it consists of you reading the work, then your colleague’s feedback on it, and then chatting with that colleague about both alongside the mark he or she has proposed for each student. At QM, second marking was mostly a collegial process, and after the chat we’d agree on grades and release them to the students in a fairly timely fashion. Collegial, yes – but also lots of work for very few real shifts in grades; often, it felt like work we need not really have bothered with, except to tick the box. As a blanket task, then, second marking seemed, and still seems, to me to be largely a waste of time. But in principle it’s a super idea, because it invites other colleagues regularly into our teaching rooms, mental and textual if not always physical, and opens up space for helpful conversations about best marking practices. (When I got stuff wrong according to a second marking colleague, I always, without fail, learned something from that colleague. I was usually annoyed, but I really did learn.)

At its very best, this is what “second marking” can offer North American university lecturers accustomed to marking in a silo, handing work back when we’re done, and then praying for not too much student blowback. Wouldn’t it be great if we actively supported and mentored one another as markers, as we often do as teachers in the classroom when we observe one another, and as we often do with our TAs informally? Would it really be so difficult to implement that kind of mentorship formally, for teachers at all levels, so that every term marking mentors were visible and available in the department, ready to help with those “tough” cases every teacher encounters in every batch of papers? You know: those assignments where you’re just not sure what to say or what grade to assign, where you wonder what your colleagues would do in this case – if only you felt OK asking them to read the paper and weigh in? How might we implement such a practice in a way that could generate effective support, especially for younger faculty but definitely for all of us, without making too much extra work for everyone?

If we begin from a place that values both the labour and the time and breathing space of the workers in question, I bet we can come up with something good.

2. Orwellian working conditions can also create valuable alliances, and cherished friendships.

Would we all prefer not to have to do the excessive paperwork that characterised my time at QM? Without question. But because I did, I had to get to know my colleagues, and I had to learn to work well with them, and, lo and behold, I got to like each of them. I find it remarkable that, despite their often strenuous workload, my Queen Mary colleagues are all more or less friends, and often really good friends. (Now I’m their friend too, and I cherish that.) Crappy committee meetings were inescapable, but the post-meeting coffee klatch at The Coffee Room or pint at The Morgan Arms was a small and welcome consolation every time, a chance for everyone to breathe, remind ourselves that we are human, that we are in this together, and that we all need to remember to ask about one another’s outside lives and really listen to what’s going on in one another’s worlds, and regularly.

Sure, QM Drama is a very special place, where people are nice and we all gel brilliantly; sure, lots of other departments are grotesquely acrimonious, and the meetings take place in a small room devised by Sartre. But I’d like to think that – again, at its best – working inside an administration-driven system might pull us, as humans who all seek so much more than paperwork in a satisfying day, a bit closer together, might encourage us to find the time to be together under different circumstances as often as possible. Often is probably not often enough (it wasn’t for me), but the potential is still there, as is the need. Something to think about for those of us who work in departments where we tend to pass each other in the twilight, moving silently between classroom and office and home: we don’t need loads of busy-work as an excuse to spend time together, as humans rather than as co-workers. We don’t need to be fast and firm friends to make some time for a proper drink and a chat about life, the universe, and that latest book project. We just need to remember that this kind of work is valuable, too – as valuable as research or teaching labour.

3. The REF is complete and utter bullshit from start to finish. But I’ve now read a hell of a lot of my colleagues’ fantastic work.

The REF is a horse’s ass; there is nothing more I want to say about its exquisite badness (to borrow a glorious adjectival phrase from the talented “Bad Feminist” Roxane Gay). What shocks me today is realising that there is actually a bit of good in the REF, aside from the kudos and pound signs it generates for the lucky winners of the grading lottery. Without question it wasted a lot of our time, on “dry runs” and “research narratives” and crying over letters with stupid colour-coded pass/fail lights on them. But it also asked us to spend time on one another in ways that, I now appreciate, meant I got to learn a lot about my colleagues’ work in a concentrated way that I doubt I otherwise would ever have done.

I got to read early drafts of Catherine Silverstone’s latest, terrific paper on queer kids in Shakespearean cinema; I got to help Ali Campbell take stock of the work he’s done among communities of elders and children in east end London over the last five years and make important connections among his disparate projects, leading toward his next big piece of work; and I was inspired to read, from cover to cover, Jen Harvie’s outstanding, important new monograph, Fair Play: Art, Performance and Neoliberalism (Palgrave, 2013), a book I loved and valued so much that I discussed it at the end of a review essay I’ve just published in Theatre Survey – a piece that was on the whole inspired by my time in the UK academy, and at Queen Mary in particular. (You can check out the journal, and the essay, here; for a taster of my comments on Jen’s book, see below the image at the end of this post.) Jen, Catherine, and Ali became truly inspiring colleagues, not just faces in neighbouring offices and not just friends, through this (otherwise truly gruesome) REF process, in part because as the UK government is busy making us tick its tyrannous boxes, it’s also requiring that we make the best of the work, find ways to support one another through it. And so I read, and questioned, and suggested, and learned; and so I’ve returned home to Canada richer, more inspired, and more hopeful for my own research.

I never want to go through the REF again (I’m betting Catherine, Ali, Jen, and my other colleagues don’t either, alas!). But it has given me the gift of new ideas, fresh thinking, warm inspiration. Nobody is more stunned than me.

Cheers, Queen Mary Drama gang! I feel the loss of you each day.

Kim

 

 

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(Mario Delgado and second year students in the studio at QM)

From What Are You Reading? By Kim Solga, Theatre Survey 55.3 (September 2014), p. 397.

“…The great strength of Fair Play is its thick research: working within Ric Knowles’s “material theatre” model, Harvie musters theory, criticism, popular press materials, a vast amount of public policy documentation, and a good measure of sociology and cultural geography to her cause. She begins with an introduction that defines her key terms and lays out the scope of her project before moving on to four case-study-driven chapters, focused variously on labor, the artist as entrepreneur, space and access, and public-private funding models. Each chapter takes up the book’s two basic but urgent research questions: In what ways do artists fall prey to reproducing neoliberal models as they make work under what [Lauren] Berlant might call the “crisis ordinariness” of arts funding today? On the other hand, in what ways do artists model different, more productive kinds of relation in the face of neoliberalism’s false social contract? Because Harvie is driven by the dialectic inherent in this pairing, the book is admirably balanced. It asks readers to weigh the evidence, and to think about how the arts are and are not better off—and how we, as humans living in a world made more humane by art, are and are not better off—under the status quo. Fair Play ultimately makes a strong yet never depressing case for the ‘not,’ [but] Harvie leaves us with real hope that something can be done.”

 

On academic work and mental health (for professors and students alike)

It’s May! Back in Canada, my colleagues are throwing off the shackles of two chilly winter terms, getting out the shorts and sandals, and finishing the year’s marking and meetings en route to four months of welcome research labour. Here in the UK it’s exam term; we’ve had a lovely Easter break over April, and now must complete our own marking, meeting, and finalizing before taking off for the summer. In short, we’ve hit a cherished time of year.

Normally this is when I start to breathe a bit more easily, feel a bit stronger and lighter; the weather lifts, the intensity of the work tapers off, and time can be made in the day for taking things slowly (…and going to the gym, or out for a ride on my beloved road bike*). And so I have. But this spring is also filled with challenges for me: my family is struggling through a time of illness, and soon I’ll be packing up a portion of my house and heading back to Canada. My husband, dog and I will be living a trans-Atlantic life for a while, and I’m fretful and anxious about the emotional challenges ahead.

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*Photo of me and bike, feeling not sad at all.

I’ve pretty much always been an anxious person, though – and my anxiety pushes beyond the bounds of normal levels. I’ve been treated for it, and for other mental health difficulties, for well over a decade; I owe a great deal of my current wellbeing to the work I have done since 2001 with my superb psychotherapist, Andrew, who is based in Toronto. I also take medication to help me cope with anxiety and its fallout (which manifests for me as a sometimes-debilitating hypochondria). My anxiety has at times made it difficult for me to work, and sometimes I need to make allowances because I’m just not feeling quite OK. I’m not very good at this part, but I’m getting better.

I’ve been prompted to share this personal information by a spate of recent chatter on the Guardian Higher Education network: a recent article and a recent blog post generated lots of commentary and spurred the Guardian to conduct a survey on academic labour and mental health. I took it, and I was surprised to find that much of the stress and anxiety I feel is not directly attributable to my job; I suspect this is partly because of the history of mental health difficulties I’ve had over the course of my lifetime. I often wonder if I didn’t seek out my career in university teaching and learning because of a perverse attachment to the stresses of being a student; knowing that anxiety is part of what drives me (as my mother once memorably said to me, about herself), I suspect I sought out the worries I knew, rather than opting for unfamiliar psychic burdens. Anyway, obviously my job is full of stresses, but I don’t consider that abnormal in any particular way. Which means two things, I think: first, that I’m pretty self-aware, and manage my anxieties fairly effectively (I’ve had lots of help and training, fortunately); and second – and this is the argument that the above-linked blog post very succinctly and helpfully makes about academics in general – that I’m perhaps too cavalier about the psycho-physical toll university life has on me, my students, and my colleagues. And that’s a serious problem.

Anecdotally, many of my fellow uni teachers report a sharp, recent increase in the number of students who come to us during office hours or advising meetings with serious mental health challenges. Just this past year I’ve encountered a student who was finding it hard to get out of bed in the morning, a student whose roommate was presenting with clinical OCD, a student from outside the UK struggling with loneliness and feelings of depression, a student diagnosed with a learning disability who was initially unable to cope with the diagnosis, and handfuls of other students not sure how to deal with what we might call the mundane stresses of academic life. I have no idea if this marks a true “increase” in student mental health problems in the UK or elsewhere – if anyone has statistics to hand on this, please post them in the comments section below – or if this is a matter of more students willing to report on their challenges to advisors; I do sense, though, that for the students who come to see me, speaking about these issues remains extremely taboo. It still takes a great deal of effort to work up the courage to knock on the door, or to email for an appointment. I’m open with students about my own mental health struggles, which may be one reason they feel they can take a chance and come talk to me, but that doesn’t make it any easier in the moment, for either of us.

Ever since I read the material on the Guardian network I’ve been thinking about how we can better support one another – colleagues and students – in maintaining our mental health and wellbeing, and I think this challenge applies equally to university and grammar school settings, although I fully admit to knowing nothing about mental health provisions for the latter in the UK or in North America today. (I remember having two psychological breaks as a student, one in year 4 and one in year 8, but I got almost no support from teachers and felt profoundly ashamed of myself as part of the experience. Then again, that was almost 30 years ago now; I hope and pray times have changed.) One thing we can, and should, do – as I’ve argued in this space a couple of times before, complete with holiday snaps! – is to remind students and peers alike that working all the time is not a good idea, will not make your output better, and will not contribute to a long and successful career; every body needs rest in order to assimilate learning, nourish itself, and grow. (I don’t care if you work in a lab, in a library, or in front of a computer most of the time – we are not ourselves machines.) But surely we can also do more.

One of the strengths of my current academic home in the Drama Department at Queen Mary University of London is the openness with which we talk about mental health issues; in fact, we maintain an academic focus on the links between performing arts and emotional wellbeing through the work of scholar/practitioners Caoimhe McAvinchey, Ali Campbell, Lois Weaver, and others, as well as through our affiliation with visual artist, performance maker, and lay medical expert Dr Bobby Baker. Next year, we’ll also be inaugurating a Master of Science pathway in Creative Arts and Mental Health, shared with QM’s Wolfson Institute for Preventive Medicine. We’re really good, in other words, at talking openly and without judgement about the kinds of wobblies that our society still, in 2014, rarely lets us admit to. Which makes us darn lucky, and sadly rare.

What have I learned from QM Drama’s focus on performance and wellbeing that might offer us a model for talking about and engaging with mental health challenges in our classrooms and staff rooms elsewhere? Here are three tips, off the top.

  • Talk about mental health and wellbeing in the classroom. More than once. And early on. Perhaps put something about it – and about the resources available to students – on the syllabus/module outline, along with some friendly, supportive language about how all of us need such help from time to time. Then make time to talk about it regularly; check in with students about how they are feeling throughout the term. As part of this process, take a risk and be honest with students: are you feeling a bit crap yourself? Why not share that information? Sure, of course, we need to retain some professional distance: a classroom is not group therapy, and many of us are not qualified psychologists. But that doesn’t mean that we cannot be honest, as human beings, about how things are going and how we’re feeling. In my experience, when students clock that their teachers are imperfect human beings too they feel instantly more at ease. They feel better.
  • Share coping strategies with students, both in the classroom and in office hours. I am very willing to tell my students that I struggle with clinical anxiety and that I take medication to help me manage that condition; I am also very willing to share my experiences of talk therapy with them. Some of you (and some of them), I know, will think this is over-sharing, but I consider it a normalizing gesture – making what might seem shameful sound actually pretty OK. I have these conditions but I’m doing fine and feeling well; you can also feel better and do well. There are a lot of services on a modern university campus designed to help students manage mental health problems, and of course it’s essential that we direct students in need to those services; sometimes, though, before sending a student away to be pathologized by a campus counselor, it can help for us to let that student know that we are all, in many ways, in this together.
  • Make some noise in your department, school or centre about mental health issues for students and staff. At QM Drama talking about mental and emotional wellness is part of what we do, both professionally and as colleagues and friends; I know full well that this is not the case in every department. (A dear friend and colleague in Canada once admitted to me that he takes medication for depression, and that by his estimate half of our department may have done; I had no idea, but when he said that to me, strict truth or not, a weight lifted.) Perhaps each department on every university campus should have a strategy – maybe ad hoc or informal, if not necessarily fixed on paper – for supporting its staff and students in times of emotional need. This strategy might be as simple as all staff being encouraged to talk about mental wellness issues whenever necessary, with students or peers; it might extend to encouragement to check in with students in the classroom, when teachers feel comfortable or able to do, so that such check-ins are considered normal and not strange for students going through the department’s courses. Or, maybe it’s as simple as fostering an atmosphere of openness and non-shamefulness in relation to mental health issues, so that everyone feels like, if they need to speak up for their own good, they can do that safely in the office or the photocopy room.

As I’ve been writing this post I’ve been wondering to myself if I’m stating the obvious; surely we all know by now that struggling with anxiety, depression, or even compulsive behaviours is not abnormal. But I have a feeling I’m not, and that we really don’t; stigmas remain, and they are tenacious. Big Pharma and its many colourful pills may be ubiquitous, but the rise of medicating mental difficulty has not necessarily opened our eyes, hearts, ears or mouths to the complex and debilitating realities of coping with it. Surely one of our jobs, as teachers and teaching colleagues, is to break such remaining barriers down – or at least to make life and work more manageable for those trapped behind them.

Be well,

Kim

On wasting time

Last week I had the chance to observe one of my colleagues, the applied theatre practitioner Ali Campbell, guiding a senior-year studio class. Normally, when I visit another teacher’s classroom, I expect to: sit quietly at the back of the room; watch him or her lead a discussion or provide lecture material; listen to student commentary and observe group dynamics; and then head up to the front of the room at the end of the class to tell my colleague what a good session it was and what I noticed about it.

With Ali, things always go differently.

What happened when I arrived in the rehearsal room where his class meets? First, I was handed a cup of tea. Indeed, the class was preparing for a tea party, during which they would be hosting a posse of seniors, retired NHS nurses originally from Jamaica, in order to conduct a performative, community-driven knowledge-sharing exercise; I arrived as things were getting started. The guests hadn’t arrived yet, so the students were all pitching in to make tea, find milk, lay out biscuits, and prepare name tags (special ones, on which we were each invited to draw an object representative of who we felt ourselves to be on that day). The guests were late, so this went on for quite a while, but Ali was not fazed; the room was absolutely jolly and, although the students were doing a bunch of different things, clearly not all of them “work”, the class also felt fully under control.

If the description above makes you roll your eyes and wonder if Ali and his gang weren’t just wasting precious time, I understand. All the stuff we tend to assume about what makes a productive classroom (eyes forward, people!) suggests they were. But what if our assumptions are misguided? What I noticed as a guest in the room was that the room housed an exceptional learning community; the students were working seamlessly together as a team, knew what they needed to do, and, once we got down to proper “work”, they quickly and organically generated exceptional insights together, all from the smallest prompts from Ali. By the time I left almost two hours later (the class meets for four hours at a time, once a week), I’d had two cups of tea, two cookies, made a rather nice little name tag, helped a group of four female students make a series of nuanced observations about the experience of crossing international borders, and created and performed with them a brief, Boal-inspired image exercise reflecting on those observations. In other words: we got rather a lot of stuff done.

I thought again about Ali’s classroom a couple of days ago, when I read a Tomorrow’s Professor post about “flipping the lecture” – a teaching mode designed to give students the freedom to listen to lecture material online, at their leisure, and then come to class prepared to work a series of problems in groups with the professor as roving guide rather than sage-on-the-stage. Flipping the lecture is just one of a number of alternative, active-classroom oriented pedagogical models that have become increasingly vogue in Anglo-American higher education over the last twenty years, but the thing I like about it is exactly what I liked so much about visiting Ali’s classroom: it implicitly puts pressure on the assumptions we hold about what constitutes a “productive” classroom – and it pushes directly back against the notion that a bunch of students talking together, in small groups, all at once in a classroom space necessarily means bad rather than valuable stuff is going on. Are those students probably also talking about Facebook, or about what happened at the party on the weekend, in addition to working on the problem assigned for the session? Of course! But: does the freedom to talk about a wide range of topics (even “time-wasting” ones) while also doing the work of the class help to energise them, to give them a kind of counter-intuitive incentive to get down to business?

“Flipping” (or Inverting) the classroom is a fairly new practice in and of itself, and there’s not a lot of “hard” data on its effects yet. But, as Bryan Goodwin and Kirsten Miller argue in a March, 2013 paper in Educational Leadership, the anecdotal evidence from instructors is encouraging:

To date, there’s no scientific research base to indicate exactly how well flipped classrooms work. But some preliminary nonscientific data suggest that flipping the classroom may produce benefits. In one survey of 453 teachers who flipped their classrooms, 67 percent reported increased test scores, with particular benefits for students in advanced placement classes and students with special needs; 80 percent reported improved student attitudes; and 99 percent said they would flip their classrooms again next year (Flipped Learning Network, 2012). Clintondale High School in Michigan saw the failure rate of its 9th grade math students drop from 44 to 13 percent after adopting flipped classrooms (Finkel, 2012).

At its core, the notion of “flipping” is really just this: handing the work of the classroom’s “doing” over to students, trusting them with class time. That’s what seems frightening, I think, to those of us (like me) who learned primarily in conventional lecture-style classrooms, and who flourished in those spaces (and thereby earned classrooms of our own). Students are supposed to be more Welcome Back Kotter than Head of the Class, we reason; they aren’t supposed to be trusted with their own education. But these days we also spend a lot of time telling them they need to take charge of their own learning; why don’t we try showing them how to do that, too? As Goodwin and Miller conclude,

What inverted classrooms may really be flipping is not just the classroom, but the entire paradigm of teaching—away from a traditional model of teachers as imparters of knowledge and toward a model of teachers as coaches who carefully observe students, identify their learning needs, and guide them to higher levels of learning. (My emphasis)

I use a lot of delegated discussion and problem-solving exercises in my theatre studies classrooms, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t sometimes (OK: plenty of times) get frustrated, worrying that the students aren’t taking things seriously enough, or taking enough “content” away from the day. And, some days, I bet they aren’t. But plenty of days they are, and on those occasions I do exactly what I’m supposed to do: I play the coach, the guide, the cheerleader, the community leader. I encourage them to figure stuff out for themselves, I celebrate great ideas and make gentle fun of underwhelming ones – and, if they don’t take it all seriously enough, I try to remind them why (and how) they should. If they leave uninspired, it’s their fault, not mine – and that’s liberating for me, too, I must say.

Thanks, Ali!

Kim