The Work of Experiential Learning

In my last post, about decolonizing my syllabus, I talked about a new class I’m teaching this autumn. Called “Toronto: Culture and Performance”, it’s an experiential learning course where my TA and I accompany our students on five trips to the city to see a wide variety of work, primarily made by theatre companies focused on intercultural labour (that is: on working across difference to embody the city’s proper diversity, as well as to represent that diversity complexly to audience members).

I pitched the class to my department about 18 months ago, and I was thrilled to get the chance to teach it. Better yet, I’m thrilled with the students I’ve got in its first iteration, who are smart, engaged, present, and committed. They come from three different programs across our faculty and their own internal diversity supports exciting class discussion. I’m also truly thrilled with and grateful to my TA, Courtney, who has already proved herself both heroic and indispensable. (Thanks so much, Courtney!)

So all is roses, yes?

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Well, no. There’s a problem. It’s not an insurmountable problem, but it’s one I think we need to talk more about, and soon.

Everyone in the academy wants experiential learning right now, and all the time. It’s something students ask for at university fairs and expos: do you have internships? Can I do an exchange? Is there study-abroad? And with the rise of the cult of “creativity” (something linked to the post-industrial engagement economy), that means profs like me – who both care about our students’ experiences, and want our students to like and appreciate us (in person and, ahem, on the evals) – have our work really cut out for us.

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Labour.

Nobody talks much about the insane amounts of extra labour that go into programming an experiential learning course – labour that is often high-stakes, emotionally amped-up; labour that is often foreign to lecturers not used to, say, organizing massive blocks of group travel or handling large amounts of money as a result.

I had a first taste of this experiential overload when I took 12 students to London for 15 days in the summer of 2017. What seemed an amazing teaching assignment quickly revealed itself to be logistically complicated, and emotionally profoundly draining. Teachers who have never run a study abroad class (and this was me until spring 2017, believe me) assume it’s lots of fun. (Whoa – free international travel!) Sure it is – but also it is not. From curating the students’ experiences, to running their debrief lessons, to arranging for, meeting, hosting, and paying the guest presenters, to protecting students fearful of harm in the big city, to protecting students from themselves (and oh yes, we had this too), it is mostly just appallingly tiring.

I could never, ever have predicted the total mind-body exhaustion I felt upon that course ending – along with, of course, feelings of sorrow at having to say goodbye to an amazing group of young women.

It took me more than a month to recover.

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These feelings of mind-body exhaustion I’m feeling again this autumn. Though the logistics of TO:C&P are nowhere near as complex as the London class, the group is also more than three times as large.

Here’s what I’m responsible for: buying and receiving all the theatre tickets; booking all the buses and liaising with the bus company before each journey; collecting all of the students’ ancillary course fees; ensuring all the students pay those fees; and ensuring all the students get to and from our field trips safely and with every head accounted for.

But wait, there’s more!

Because Toronto is a two-hour-plus drive from Western, we need to leave ahead of our scheduled class time in order to ensure we are comfortably on time for each show. (The course runs Tuesday evenings, as a three-hour block, so that on our field trip days the show IS the class.) This means a handful of students (roughly 10) had conflicts with other classes and commitments in the late afternoon that required sorting. I worked with them on all of these, sometimes negotiating directly with other instructors to ensure students could be accommodated and still remain in both my class and theirs.

And more still!

Because the course was full for most of August, the cap having been doubled in July due to demand, and because 45+ tickets per order is a lot to ask of small theatres, I discovered that I had to book and pay (with the help of my also-heroic colleague in our office, Beth) for most tickets in advance. Naturally, some students dropped the course before the first field trip, and thus owed us nothing; I then realized I was stuck holding their batch of tickets and costs owing. So I now had to unload those tickets to make up the shortfall, lest we run a deficit. (I spent the first two weeks of September anxiously watching the course numbers each morning, praying students would stay with me so I wouldn’t have to do yet more salesmanship/fundraising. By this point, I WAS ALREADY PRETTY TIRED.)

Oh, yes. And of course: I also have to actually teach the course.

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Now I know that the above list is going to sound weird to some of you – for example, those of you in Theatre departments who have a team of staff that assist with this kind of labour for field trips as a routine. It might also sound both odd and grim to those of you with really robust tools in place at your schools to govern how faculty and staff labour is allocated around experientially-driven courses.

But I suspect for others, it will ring painfully true. Because what happened to me was the same thing that happens all the time in the modern university: an instructor gets a cool idea for a great, stimulating course, sets about creating it, and discovers in the process that systems that ought to be in place to support this kind of creative teaching really are not in place, or are not as robust as they need to be, and probably can’t be funded properly anyway.

Often, of course, it takes the front-end labour of running these kinds of courses once or twice before their system-altering needs become clear; then (if you are lucky), your unit innovates to help you out. But just as often, in my experience, you innovate and are told what a good job you’ve done, and are then invited to do it all again, more or less all alone, again.

Welcome back, invisible teaching overload.

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I want to stop here and say that I am very well aware that I am enormously privileged to be able to teach courses like the ones I describe above. In the case of the London course (“Destination Theatre”), I had administrative help from the Student Success Centre on campus, as well as from our international learning team, which funded the course’s development very generously. For TO:C&P, I received monetary support from all of the participating departments, and that allowed me to cut the students’ auxiliary fees almost in half. I also want to acknowledge that I am a salaried and tenured professor and therefore hardly poorly compensated for my labour in any case.

Third, I want to recognize that I’ve had a lot of words of support from different folks around me these last few weeks, and we will certainly be debriefing the class, discussing future best practices, and hopefully implementing at least some of them to streamline the work and take some of the liability out of my hands next time.

But the fact remains: I made an experiential learning course and got dropped into an abyss of labour I had not really expected. Why?

Because we style experiential learning as “fun”, not as “work”.

This is a familiar song in the neoliberal university playbook. Please source and deliver internships! Please create value-added courses with exciting field trip components! Please develop a study-abroad capstone – so cool to go abroad with students! In other words: please take on the extra work “creativity” requires in order that we can be seen to be delivering happy info-sumers primed to make their own mark on the engagement economy, where experience is everything. We will love you, LOVE YOU, for it! Even if the resources we can offer you aren’t really sufficient relative to the work expected of you, and even if there’s no way we can acknowledge in your ordinary workload what an extra lot of logistical, organizational, and emotional labour the course will generate.

Obviously, this is not a problem unique to my university, where, to be honest, though my faculty is cash-strapped to the max, squeezed hard, and in real pain, my chair and my dean really did their best by TO:C&P. Rather, this is a problem of the moment we are in: profs far and wide have become university “entertainers,” curators of exceptional experiences in an economy where the arts is valued hypothetically for its power to undergird a “creative” economy, but is rarely valued monetarily to match. This remains especially true in the arts programs that support some of the most exciting experiential programming on our campuses, where the squeeze from dropping enrolments in the age of STEM-ification has meant fewer resources with which to be ever more spectacular. STEAM success stories aside, we remain poor cousins in flashy costumes, exhausted from all the late-night stitching.

I’m sketching here the link between my current fatigue and a systemic problem that is far too complex to solve in a blog post (as if anything every got solved in a blog post!).

So, what can we do, on the ground, right now?

I’m going to say we can share our stories. We can talk openly, and regularly, and both inside and outside our departments, about the massive amounts of extra work that cool new course I created has made, and for whom. (My TA is doing a lot of the in-course logistics, and I am so, so grateful to her, but that also means she has less time to do pedagogically more thoughtful work, and I’m painfully aware of this.) We can repeat the course’s (fun! but also complicated!) story to the administrators we know. We can say it to our union reps. And we can share it with our students. We can let them know the work behind the glittering curtain is not nothing; we can invite them to press the university, through their student unions, for more support – and for more transparent, easily accessible, visible and equitable support – for experiential learning course development across all units.

Thank goodness I now see, finally, a light at the end of the tunnel. TO:C&P is up and running: the shows are fun and the students terrific, and almost all have paid their fees. I’ve offloaded enough tickets to break us even, more or less. I can breathe again.

But with that fresh air also comes the gratitude of knowing I’m tenured and salaried, not on contract. I can’t imagine the precarity of doing all of this extra work without job security; I can’t imagine finding the courage to speak up about under-resourcing under those circumstances. Which means that the effort we put in now – as securely employed teachers – to draw the labour of the university’s experience economy into the light, and to demand it be better funded, will be of enormous benefit down the line.

Because I bet if I was a contract instructor assigned to this course, I’d really appreciate how much fun it is to teach, too.

I’m going to bed! See ya,

Kim

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On Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls at the Shaw Festival (Part 2)

A little while ago I posted to this space the program note I wrote for the Shaw Festival production of Top Girls, one of my favourite plays by the prolific and inspiring British feminist Caryl Churchill. At that time I promised I’d write a review of the production after I saw it – which I did last Friday night, at the luminous premiere in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

We had a perfect evening for the festivities – cloudless blue skies dying to black under the twinkling lights of the Court House Theatre. Opening party-goers dined beneath a festive canopy in the gardens at the historic Lakewinds guest house before undertaking the short, picturesque stroll to the show. At the interval, we spilled outside with wine and ice-creams as the stars came out. Inside, the stars of the show lit up the stage. And yes: it was every bit as charming, as dream-like as it sounds.

Before I share my thoughts on the production proper – which I found smart, sharp, fun, and moving – I want to share the story of how I came to be at the glamorous premiere I’ve just described. Bear with me – there’s good reason for this diversion.

I’ve written program notes for several theatres in Canada and the U.K., and each company compensates essayists differently. I’ve been given honoraria (including by the Shaw), complimentary tickets to several productions (from festivals like Stratford that run a season in repertory), access to directors and key artists, as well as royalties from the subsequent reprinting of notes when shows go on tour. But this was new: Shaw invited me to attend the opening night dinner for Top Girls as well as the cocktail reception beforehand, during which I would meet both the talented artists who created the show as well as a large helping of wealthy donors, those who help keep Shaw going from year to year. Then we would all see, together, the opening performance itself, seated cheek-by-jowl with Shaw’s theatrical glitterati as well as a brace of critics from over the lake in Toronto.

The Shaw puts on a great party, and I and my companion had enormous fun sipping our gin and tonics under the big white tent. I won’t lie, though; I found it rather uncomfortable to be seated at a table with jobbing artists on one side and extremely rich people on the other (however generous, friendly, and philanthropically minded those people are). I could tell from brief looks and a few small moments of awkwardness that the artists around me were used to this routine: of course the dinner offers a good time, but it’s also work for them. They must be consistently convivial and forthcoming with their chat; they help to star-dust the evening for the donors who pay for elite access to the festival’s inner workings when they cut their big cheques. Then it dawned on me: I, too, was at work as I munched my seared tuna. No wonder I had been nervous beforehand! Although I’d not lit the show, designed costumes, acted or directed, I had provided creative labour for the festival. As they flattered me with a gala invite, the Shaw staff also slyly invited me to perform my virtuosity as a researcher and writer for those seated near me.

Again, lest I seem ungrateful for what was a genuinely gorgeous evening, let me say once more that I had a really nice time, and I suspect everyone around me did too. But that should not hide the fact that for some at the cocktails and supper party “pleasure” and “work” had to commingle inextricably. This is the nature of so much “creative class” labour today: you’re never off duty when it’s your job to manage the pleasure of others for profit. (For a smart, very critical look at the way the creative class has been imagined by urban theory over the last decade, check out this article by Jamie Peck.)

Creative (or “immaterial“) labour isn’t a new thing, of course: artists have always been linked to patrons with money. (If you’ve never seen Impromptu, watch it now!) But the emergence of the creative class as a broad spectrum group is a modern phenomenon, and in its current iteration it is tied to the rise of neoliberalism as a socio-political economy for the information age. Creative labourers generate content (they are writers, graphic designers, web developers), manage consumer experience (they are brand managers or ad execs), set a mood (if they are not designers, they work “in design”), shape a zeitgeist (inevitably, they write blogs. Ahem.) They may well be talented artists making real, tangible things – like beautiful pieces of theatre! – but just as importantly they create an aura, a sharp desire that makes others want to be a part of their culturally-aware awesomeness. The building and maintenance of this aura is key to the work accomplished by today’s creative workforce – just as it was key to the work the artists and I did under the tent at the Top Girls opening party.

Top Girls is a play about the cruelties of neoliberal economics: it pits its sixteen female characters against one another in the fight to the top of the “super-business-woman” pyramid. After eating my gala dinner and then watching director Vikki Anderson’s production, however, I realised that Top Girls is also very much a play about the pressures of the creative class, for women artists and brand executives alike. And while my gala experience was helpful in framing the reading I’m about to offer, it was ultimately two particularly innovative choices made by Anderson and her team that threw this production’s focus on the working lives of creative women into stark relief.

Fiona Byrne as Marlene in Top Girls.

(At right: Fiona Byrne as Marlene, Top Girls’ high-flying, smart-dressing main character. Photo by David Cooper.)

First, Anderson chose to show us the backstage labour involved in preparing to go on as one of Churchill’s strong female characters. Before the play began, and while the house lights were still up, we saw the cast enter one by one, sit at makeup desks, prepare their faces and put on their costumes – all while bopping and air-guitaring to ’80s pop and rock tunes selected by sound designer Thomas Ryder Payne. (Top Girls dates to 1982.) Throughout the show this backstage space returned as the women took off the trappings of one role and put on another; the conceit was clever and it spoke elegantly (as did Anderson’s director’s note) to the typically invisible grooming women are expected to undertake in their “off” hours in order to “stage” themselves for success at work each day. (Men, too, suffer increasingly from these expectations, I know; the pressure on women remains much more powerful.)

So Anderson’s frame-story was one about gender, power, and the performance of self – Judith Butler 101. But it was also more, and for me this “more” was the bit tied to the playful dancing. These women didn’t trudge on joylessly; they entered smiling, chatting, grooving, and eager to share some of this time with one another. Yes, we saw their silent work at their mirrors, but we also saw them coalesce as they worked into a community of artist-professionals who were supporting each other through their shared tasks. Several danced together; two exchanged quite intimate words and gestures. Most gave each other shoulder squeezes and short pep talks that I suspect were more for one another than for us – gestures of solidarity and support among a group of women about to go to work for the night, rather than performances of “play” for audience edification.

Laurie Paton as Jeanine in Top Girls.

(Laurie Paton prepares to become Jeanine in Act 2. Photo by David Cooper.)

Top Girls was written in the early years of Margaret Thatcher’s rule; it demonstrates how the cult of the individual she championed wrecks the potential for feminist community and feminist political solidarity across difference. Anderson’s frame-story implies that community is actually an essential component of success for a contemporary “creative” woman. Is it a bit utopic, perhaps unrealistic? Maybe. But, then again, each of these seven performers killed it on Friday night – so if those squeezes, grooves, and supportive words at the top of the show were made of real stuff, they sure did real work, and it got real results.

Julia Course as Angie and Tess Benger as Kit in Top Girls.

(Julia Course as Angie and Tess Benger as Kit. Photo by David Cooper. )

Anderson’s second innovation has to do with Angie, the high-flying main character’s not especially high-achieving niece. In many productions of Top Girls Angie is costumed blandly and played as a bit of a lump – exactly how her bitter mom (Joyce) and her successful aunt (Marlene) describe her to others. But Anderson clearly doesn’t believe Joyce and Marlene: Julia Course’s Angie is vivacious, wacky, smiley, full of life – frankly hilarious, a show-stealer. No wonder Kitty, the smaller girl down the road, wants to play with her all the time!

Course’s Angie is also glued to her exercise book, an item Churchill mentions only very briefly in Act 3 but which Course and Anderson choose to read as evidence of Angie’s burgeoning creativity, a zest for drawing, words, and imaginative play. Here, Angie isn’t a dullard who “isn’t going to make it” because she’s not smart or ambitious (as Marlene declares meanly at one point); nor is she doomed to failure because she doesn’t come from money and hasn’t had opportunities. This Angie’s trouble comes from the fact that her brand of imagination – the kind that takes wing under forts built of blankets, or in notebooks hidden under mattresses – isn’t valued by the culture around her, a culture that lusts after the kinds of creativity Marlene peddles when she tells her employment agency clients how to present themselves in an interview, what parts of themselves to reveal and what parts to conceal. Marlene’s creativity is for-profit, carefully honed and framed, but Angie’s creativity is messy, chaotic, just for fun – for pleasure with no strings attached. If she could tame it, shape it, sell it… well then, surely she could make it. But that’s not Angie’s style – and that’s why Marlene condemns her as someone with no style at all.

Top Girls opens with a lavish dinner party to celebrate Marlene’s promotion to director of her agency; I suspect Marlene would make a pretty attractive guest at any opening night gala. Angie, on the other hand, would be a complete disaster at a glam dinner: all legs, arms flailing; all too-small, too-shiny dresses and mad, frenetic energy. Or, then again, maybe she’d be just what more gala dinners need: less work, more unbridled play.

Party on, ladies!

Kim