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 #DestinationTheatre (a field trip report)

One thing I’ll say about my life as an academic: it involves a lot of travel, and plenty of that travel is a real pleasure. Two weeks ago I was in London, England, at the school where I used to work, Queen Mary University of London. I was there with my colleague from Western’s new Theatre Studies program, MJ Kidnie, and our student Caitlin Austin. Our mission: to meet with a long list of theatre and performance people, from my gang at QM to folks at Shakespeare’s Globe, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, the Shakespeare Institute and the RSC, with whom we might partner as we build our new experiential learning course, Destination Theatre.

We spent the week in meetings, but we also had a barnstorming time wandering the city with Caity and seeing it through her eyes as though for the first time. (Both MJ and I have lived in London before.) We saw an awful lot of theatre – imagine going to the theatre for work! – from a stunning, gutting, critically acclaimed production of The Oresteia trilogy in the West End, to a gorgeous, moving play about dementia cutting through a family (The Father), to a raunchy, modish Measure for Measure at the always-hopping Young Vic. Above all, though, we laboured as a team: meeting and tweeting (@westernuTheatre) and story boarding, all in the service of imagining what our new course will look like once all the glittering potential is harnessed and the inspiring pieces are slotted into place.

MJ with the London Eye

MJ with the London Eye

Eventually, in winter 2017, Destination Theatre will have its first full outing: 25 students from across the university plus two instructors will jet over to Britain for two full weeks of theatre, workshops, artists’ talks, guest visits to some of the coolest back stages around, and seminars with some of the best performance scholars in country. Their experience will be all the more memorable because of Caity’s contributions during our recent reconnaissance journey; her student’s-eye view proved invaluable to the work of imagining this course’s future shape. She saw things we two mid-career teachers simply could not, and that seeing shifted our thinking in key ways.

Caity at Shakespeare's Globe

Caity at Shakespeare’s Globe

How did we come to bring a student with us to London to help us plan a course? Back in April MJ and I won a grant from Western’s International Curriculum Fund to support journeys to London and New York in order to create partnerships for Destination Theatre. Sometime in late summer, as we were reaching out to colleagues and pricing flights, I got an email from Caity about her upcoming course load. Going into senior year she was a credit short for her Theatre Studies major, and there were no courses on offer that she hadn’t already taken. We started hunting around for alternatives – in media studies, in sociology, you name it – that might fit. She did a load of legwork and presented us with options.

While this was happening, I remembered that Caity would graduate the year before Destination Theatre’s first journey abroad, and that she had been crestfallen last autumn when she found that out. I also remembered what a reliable, thoughtful, mature student (and incredibly hard worker) she was. I talked to MJ: instead of “taking” (or, rather, missing her chance to take) Destination Theatre, could Caity help us to build Destination Theatre? We hatched a plan for a reading course in which Caity would split her time between test-driving some of the readings and assessments we had in the works for DT, and doing internship labour for us. As part of the latter she would join us on the London planning leg, consult with us from her vantage point as a senior undergraduate, and then write a final report for the Theatre Studies Committee. And, of course, in the process she would experience her own London theatre “intensive”, helping us to spot must-haves as well as also-rans for the first cohort in 2017.

We floated the reading course idea to Caity; she was excited and keen – even though the course would without question prove more work for her than an ordinary half-credit. Armed with her enthusiastic interest and commitment to the task, we approached our undergraduate studies chair to formalise the arrangement.

Making the most of every minute: Caity with Falstaff in Stratford-upon-Avon...

Making the most of every minute: Caity with Falstaff in Stratford-upon-Avon…

I won’t lie: despite our faith in Caity and the great-on-paper plan for the work she would do for us in London, MJ and I were a bit skeptical about outcomes. We weren’t sure, going into the journey, that Caity would really be able to tell us anything we would not see for ourselves. After all, course planning is a large part of our jobs, and we are both quite good at it.

Caity, however, quickly proved us wrong.

...and after winning a ticket to The Book of Mormon!

…and after winning a ticket to The Book of Mormon!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

She was an outstanding secretary and third eye in all of our meetings with potential UK partners, a consummate professional as well as a genial participant. Most importantly, however, she consistently reminded us about the crucial differences between what students (and their parents!) will want from the Destination Theatre experience, and what we might value as teachers and administrators. For example: MJ and I focused a lot on costs, and assessed potential student housing with an eye to making the trip as cheap as possible for participants. But Caity reminded us that the cheapest option wouldn’t necessarily be the most attractive one for students: she bet that both students and parents or guardians would prefer to pay a few pounds more per night for secure, on-campus housing at Queen Mary, which would allow students to stay right next door to the spaces they would use for classes while in London.

She also reminded us that students will want to see as much theatre as possible while on the trip, but will also want to be tourists: for many of them, this will be their first journey to the UK. Old Londoners like MJ and me tend to disdain stuff like Madame Tussaud’s or the London Eye (the huge ferris wheel on the South Bank), and of course many university professors have bad allergies to anything that smacks of mass entertainment. But Caity was keen, and thoughtfully so: they might be tacky, sure, she told us – but that does not make tourist attractions less valuable for our purposes. Touristy things, she noted, are as big a part of the experience package we are building as any show is; they will be key to how Destination Theatre exposes students to a new, global city and its hugely diverse theatrical culture.

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In the spring I’m off to New York City to plan the second iteration of Destination Theatre. Caity’s “dry run” will be over by then, and I know I will miss having her along for the ride. Luckily, she spent part of the summer of 2015 in NYC on a short course at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and she knows Manhattan’s theatrical ropes pretty well. You can guarantee I’ll be grilling her for tips before I get on the plane.

 

Still learning all kinds of stuff from students,

Kim

PS: stay tuned for a post by Caity on her experience – coming soon!