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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nope. Of course not.

What I did was, I lost my shit.

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

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

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

What does it say about my mental load at work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do we begin to fix this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kim

 

On teaching and the mental load, part one

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OK: so now you’re thinking,

Kim! WTF does this have to do with teaching?

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

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

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

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

So far so simple to understand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(My emphasis)

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

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

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

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

You know: women’s work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay cool meanwhile,

Kim

On the freedom to move, and the freedom to be, part 3

It’s Saturday 10 December, a bit dreary and rainy but the holiday trimmings keep things light. My ticket says 11am, so at 10:45 I emerge from the Regent’s Canal exit at King’s Cross underground station and turn right. There’s a queue forming outside the makeshift theatre space, but I head straight for the ramp, flash my ticket, and am ushered through into a warm, tight lobby. Then, huddled together in the buzz and the heat, we wait: me and several dozen other lucky folks who have ponied up £120 for the Donmar Warehouse’s Shakespeare Trilogy, created and directed by Phyllida Lloyd and her incredible cast in association with Clean Break.

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As you can imagine, we are mostly the expected demographic: in early 30s and 20s (notably, thanks in part to the Donmar’s “Front Row” access scheme), plus a few middle aged and older; not exclusively but by far majority white. We look like a night at the Almeida or the Young Vic across town; we look, mostly, like London’s privileged theatre-going class.

But today, for this one time only, I just don’t care.

Because we are here to see a monumental, game-changing piece of work. We are here to see an astonishingly talented group of women – women ONLY, and largely women of colour – perform three Shakespeare plays not associated, typically, with women’s roles: Julius Caesar, Henry IV, and The Tempest. These women will play all the parts, and they will play them so well that at the end of the day I will declare on social media, with all the force of twenty years of Shakespeare-going around the world behind me, that this is some of the finest, if not THE finest, Shakespeare I’ve ever witnessed.

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Sheila Atim and Jade Anouka in Henry IV.

What follows is a post about mobility, accessibility, and the public stage. About what it takes to put women’s stories on view for a public audience, and why it shouldn’t have to take so very much at all – because women’s stories are, in fact, for everyone.

Women’s stories are STORY, full stop.

But this is also a post about mobility, accessibility, and those who live on our margins, because the Shakespeare Trilogy doesn’t just put women’s stories, through the words of William Shakespeare, on the stage.

It puts incarcerated women’s stories on stage, and it has given incarcerated women the freedom to explore their stories in kind.

It was early 2012 (a full year before Orange is the New Black made prison women hip, y’all) when Phyllida Lloyd joined forces with Josie Rourke, Artistic Director of the Donmar Warehouse, and Executive Producer Kate Pakenham to conceive an all-female Julius Caesar.

(Let’s stop for a minute and mark this, because it will be important: Josie [below right] and Kate run one of London’s premier West-End venues. Phyllida [below left] is one of the UK’s leading directors. GIRLS TO THE FRONT, as my friend the film critic Sophie Mayer says.)

Why just girls on stage? Lloyd notes in an interview reprinted in the ST program that “Women have not been well served by [Britain’s] devotion to the Bard,” for two reasons. First, as she, Charlotte Higgins, Elizabeth Freestone, and other researchers (including me, in a forthcoming article) have argued recently, Shakespeare’s plays were written for a company of men, to be played primarily for male audiences (as well as for a Queen who styled herself a virgin). Of course most of the good roles were going to be male!

What does this mean for us, now? Simple: when we universalise Shakespeare’s power, authority, and aesthetic prowess, we also universalise what was in fact an entirely context- and history-dependent accident: an imbalance of male versus female (or gender-neutral) roles.

And because we lionise Shakespeare as the original poet-genius, we also call that shit not just normal, but ideal.

Second, and related, is this reason: with the canonisation of William “The Bard” Shakespeare – and the attendant cultural and economic power enjoyed by the Shaks industry worldwide – has come a firm, entrenched tradition of male “ownership” over this figure. Shakespeare’s roles are largely for men; the best ones (Lear, Hamlet, Prospero, Hal) are rite-of-passage work for male actors; tradition holds that men more typically direct His work. (And direct it better, somehow. How do we know? Well, we just… do. Don’t believe me? Tonic Theatre’s Advance project will open your eyes. Read more here.)

All this means that a situation like the Shakespeare Trilogy – in which Josie and Kate ask Phyllida to direct a major play, then another, then a third, with women in all the roles – is an utter, stunning rarity. Much more common, even in these post-feminist days, is a situation like the one in place at the Royal Shakespeare Company: powerful A.D. Greg Doran welcomed Erica Whyman as “deputy” A.D. in 2013; she took over responsibility for new work, equality and diversity files, and the redevelopment of the RSC’s famed small venue, The Other Place. Wonderful stuff, to be sure – Whyman is an incredibly talented visionary! – but again, let’s stop and mark the distinction, because it’s important. Doran is the current “owner” of the RSC’s brand; nobody questions that. Whyman’s role is one of helpmeet: she makes the RSC a safe place to play if you are not white and male.

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This is the context in which – and these are the reasons why – the partnership among Lloyd, Rourke, and Pakenham was so ground-breaking in 2012, and why it continued enthusiastically with 2014’s Henry IV and 2016’s The Tempest. And the need for women’s voices and experiences in all aspects of making Shakespeare now on stage felt obvious to me the moment I stepped into the Donmar’s King’s Cross space and witnessed the energy, the fire, the athleticism, and the power of the women-identified actors making this work.

Whole, amazing, brave new worlds emerge when women’s contemporary bodies inhabit the characters written originally for men 400 years ago.

And, to make matters even more electric: in this case, the worlds that emerged were driven by the powerful imaginations of women who are, literally, bounded in a nutshell.

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Anouka and the cast of The Tempest. I have a little crush on Jade; hence all the photos!

***

While I’m waiting in the lobby for the first show to begin, I read all the materials on the cast wall adjacent to the seating area. Here, I grab a handful of postcards with photos of the actors, in-role as their prison characters, and turn them over. The cards tell me this:

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The Shakespeare Trilogy is meta-theatre at its finest. It is theatre about the process of putting Shakespeare on stage. It is about what making theatre can help us to understand about ourselves, about our relationship to the cultures that shape us, and about our potential future worlds.

In conjunction with Lloyd, each other, and the women prisoners with whom they worked throughout their creative process, each of the professional actors in the ST cast created a female prison character through which to shape her interpretation of the Shakespearean characters she portrays in each of the plays in the trilogy.

(Got that? It goes: actor -> prison character -> multiple Shaks characters. Actors play the prison characters, which are then layered onto the Shaks characters. It’s tricky to do and tricky to watch. It’s an utterly marvellous challenge for audiences, though.)

We in the audience spy those prison characters briefly at the top and bottom of each show, as well as in moments through the middles when the Shakespeare gets interrupted by guards, when momentary violence between the prison characters breaks out, or when moments of tenderness, fear, and love amongst the imprisoned women bubble to the surface, driven by the emotions the verse brings.

These shows, in other words, aren’t just Shakespeare; they are a representation of Shakespeare played by and for women on the inside, for their own pleasure, learning, sustenance, and strength. We are visitors at their drama club, watching them do something important for themselves. We are asked to bear witness to them as they shape their stories through Shakespeare’s language, and as they give their own bodies, hearts, and minds fresh life thereby.

The ST was created in partnership with two organisations (Clean Break, linked above, and the York St John University Prison Partnership Project) that bring a form of drama therapy to incarcerated women in an effort to help them access their power and potential and build new worlds to walk into when they get out of jail. But ST itself is not drama therapy; it is, rather, a kind of immersive event that invites those of us privileged – with money, time, cultural capital and bodily freedom – to see for once properly inside the privilege that has accrued to the works of William Shakespeare, and to recognise one way in which that privilege might be more equitably distributed.

Who owns this legendary – no, this mythical – guy’s stuff? Who really benefits from its continual re-hashing, from our world-without-end need to see YET ANOTHER Romeo and Juliet? Who else might benefit? What would it take to make that actually happen?

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Harriet Walter, in a promotional shot for Henry IV.

I don’t have room here to review these amazing three shows in full, but I do want to offer three small snapshots of my experience over the course of the 12 hours I gave over to Lloyd, her creative partners, her actors, and the imprisoned women whose spirits they held throughout the day. These are simply recordings of three moments that made meaning for me as a woman invested in theatre equality, as a scholar invested in women making Shakespeare for the public stage, and as a human being trying to be hopeful in a moment of bleak uncertainty. They are three moments that especially moved me.

Moment number one happened at the end of Julius Caesar. With but lines to go, the performers playing ushers/guards brought the prison characters’ show to a close: lights up, everyone back to their bunks. Harriet Walter, as Brutus, was positioned on the stairs behind me and to the left. (The ST played in an arena-style, in-the-round space that called up the spirit of a chilly institutional gymnasium.)

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“IT ISN’T FAIR!” she called out, visibly upset. For a moment I wasn’t sure who was speaking: Brutus, her prison character Hannah (pictured above), or Harriet herself. “YOU NEVER LET US FINISH,” she continued, through tears. This world, she cried out, has gone all to shit. Everything is a mess. So there, then: you finish it. YOU FINISH IT.

She ran down the steps and off stage; her departure left me with the strong sense of a call to arms. This wasn’t work made for me, for us in the hard plastic chairs banked around the room; this wasn’t even just work made for the women who inspired it. It was work made in the hope of a fresh future for all who need one, and if it could not be permitted to end – if it was always, cruelly, brutally stopped before its promised ending by those who either didn’t appreciate its value, or (worse) saw the value and aimed to withhold it – then that future might not ever begin.

I left for lunch feeling gutted.

Moment number two appeared two thirds of the way through Henry IV, by far my favourite performance of a Shakespeare play of all time. (OF. ALL. TIME.) Anchored by the bewitchingly mischievous Clare Dunne as Hal (below left), Sophie Stanton’s rough-but-ready, working class Falstaff (below right), and the svelt, gorgeous, forthrightly confident Jade Anouka as Hotspur, this piece exuded athleticism, confidence, and harsh masculinity – all this with no biological males in site. (Apart from being stunning ensemble theatre and simply outstanding, clear-as-a-bell verse speaking, Lloyd’s Henry IV is a textbook example of gender as social performance rather than biological “fact”.)

But it was when Anouka and Dunne faced off – the prized fight of this play, between the balsy princes-in-arms – that the sheer power and beauty of these strong, able, talented women’s bodies shone through their characters, through the text, and landed on stage before us. This was the moment I recognized that I’d been so engrossed in watching and listening I’d not noticed the time pass, and that I really, really did not want this performance to end. I’ve honestly never before felt that at the theatre – and certainly not at a performance of Shakespeare’s work. (Usually by the end of Act Four I’m ready for it to be over, already. Not this time.)

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Dunne and Anouka take each other down. Electrifying.

Moment number three marked Lloyd’s ending. The Tempest is done, and only Walter as Hannah – who is based on the life of Judith Clark, an American serving 75 years for a crime committed during a political action – is left on stage. She’s in her bunk. She’s reading. She gets a visit from one of the other prison women: someone who’s been inside but is now free, and has come back to make sure Hannah is loved, seen, cared for (and has fresh reading material!). That’s when lights come gently up on all of the staircases around the space; the women’s prison characters appear in every nook and cranny. They are out now; Hannah, with a lifetime on the clock, will only ever see friends come in order to go. But they are here now, maybe in person or maybe in Prospero’s dream, to send their love and memories and best wishes. To say they are doing fine, haven’t forgotten the lessons they shared making theatre together.

I know for sure this sounds cheesy – and I know colleagues who thought the entire prison frame unnecessary to the work of making amazing feminist Shakespeare. But I was beyond moved by this final action, and by the power of community – women’s community, brave and strong – that it called into the otherwise barren space.

I remembered Hannah’s words at the end of Julius Caesar: YOU FINISH IT, THEN. Or maybe – hey, maybe – you could join us, support us, honour what we’re building rather than strike it down before its ending. Help us get to a new beginning. Together, I bet we could do it.

No community is perfect – that’s obvious multiple times throughout the ST plays, as the prison characters fight or risk unraveling. But together is the only way we make things better, the only way we move forward, move safely on – and this theatre is stark, gorgeous evidence of just that. Lloyd, Rourke, Anouka, Dunne, Walter… and the many, many, many women on and off stage who made these three incredible shows reveal what power Shakespeare holds for women able to seize it – and for the women to whom they are able to grant access to that power in turn.

Thus, for me, is the Shakespeare Trilogy finally work about access – access to cultural power, political power, the power of learning, the power of creative making, the power of public performance. This access is grabbed hard and with fire by those whose mobility had been limited by Patriarchy’s Shakespeare, but who won’t stand for barriers anymore.

Long may they hold open the doors.

Kim

PS: I know this has been a very long post. Thank you for reading!

 

What Women Weigh

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This gallery contains 6 photos.

Originally posted on Fit Is a Feminist Issue:
The morning after the presidential election I had my regular quarterly checkup with my rheumatologist, a wonderful south Asian-Canadian woman who treats my Ankylosing Spondylitis. I was already reeling from exhaustion and…

Talking to students about Clinton vs Trump

I’ve not been watching any of the U.S. presidential debates – neither of the two main events, nor the VP candidates’ debate. This isn’t because of disinterest or distance; on the contrary, as a Canadian I’m uncomfortably close to and heavily invested in the outcome of this contest, and as a woman and a feminist I could not imagine the stakes to be higher. The campaign has become nothing less than a referendum on misogyny: a man who revels in violent language, casually admits to sexual harassment, and displays bald-faced ignorance of raced and gendered realities (alongside a swath of sociopathic behaviours) is up against a talented, openly feminist woman with three decades’ worth of experience in federal politics. There’s just no other way to sign it.

The reason I’m not watching the debates is because they cause me profound, deeply-felt anxiety; it’s just so exhausting, upsetting, too hard. (For many women, it has been triggering. Trump is a bully and a predator; watching that behaviour in others, when you’ve been personally victimised, can leave you emotionally shattered and physically ill.) Of course I eat up the commentary afterward – in the Guardian, the Globe and Mail, the New York Times and the Washington Post. I obsessively check Twitter and Facebook for reactions. I look for balance – what did the left think? What the right? – in an effort to figure out what a cross-section of us are really thinking. I know this is a fool’s errand, but it has become compulsive behaviour for me.

I’m terrified.

When I walk into my classrooms, I look at my students and wonder hard what they are thinking. Are they watching? Are they fearful like me? Is Clinton v. Trump on their radar? Are any of them Trump supporters – or simply not sure? (How can you not be sure?!?! I fear blurting out to them…)

Given the raw abrasion I’m experiencing, I’m understandably very much afraid to bring the election, in any detail, up in classes. Quite apart from the fact that it’s not professional for a university professor to express her specific political views in the classroom (we have enormous influence, and students still believe, sometimes quite rightly, that profs want them to parrot views back to them), I honestly can’t imagine mediating a reasonable conversation about this election campaign with students right now. It’s too hot a button – for me if not for many of them.

And yet. And yet. At this moment, in America and its spheres of influence (which, let’s be honest, is still most of us), nuanced conversation is under siege. Reasoned debate has flown the coop – Trump is working hard to suffocate all space for it. As Kenneth Pennington wrote in the Guardian Monday morning, the Trump circus is depriving Americans of exactly the kind of discussions citizens of an advanced democracy deserve to be having at a crucial juncture in their nation’s political and economic history. They are already losers in this contest, but, if there is anything yet to be salvaged, it’s the future of difficult ideas in the American public sphere.

Which means that now more than ever, my students – students across North America, and beyond – need to talk about this election. They deserve the tools of critical engagement and nuanced expression our arts and humanities classes foster, precisely because Trump mocks the notion that complex, nuanced arguments are a social good. They have a right to dissect the orchestration and dissemination of his, as well as Clinton’s, political performances. They have a right for a strong basis for careful judgement.

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Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speak during the second presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

As a teacher, it’s my responsibility to give my students the intellectual means to make sense of what is happening right in front of them, even if I choose not to invite an open discussion of debate specifics, or of Trump’s most astonishing, demeaning statements.

The question, of course, then becomes: how?

This autumn I’m teaching a second-year core theatre studies course called “performance beyond theatres”; it’s essentially an introduction to performance studies, the interdisciplinary field that examines the performative dimensions of social and cultural behaviour in a wide array of contexts. Luckily, one of those contexts is politics; politicians are rhetoricians, after all, and rhetorics is talk-as-show.

Performance Beyond Theatres gives me a natural opening for political discussion, but it also offers me the chance to ground that discussion in forensic description and textual analysis, which together let us unpack political behaviours with a (relatively) objective eye. I find this relative objectivity very useful: nobody need openly stake a claim to a “side” in order to participate in the discussion. Rather, we examine together how politicians enact their personae, how they use language to inculcate the realities they want us to believe in, and how we, as interested and critically attuned audiences, might react in turn. (Between fire-brand high-fiving and utter disbelief, there are a number of options.)

How does this work? When we explored ritual performance near the beginning of term (with anthropologist Victor Turner), we looked to Barack Obama’s 2008 acceptance speech (available on Youtube) to help us understand the moment of a ritual subject’s “reintegration” into a community. (The context, from our reading, was a new leader preparing to take up the mantel of authority.) Paying attention to Obama’s tone, his affect, the stage set-up, and his choice of words, we were able to talk about the role his “community” – voters; actors on social media; producers and consumers of more traditional media; denizens in the audience in Chicago that autumn night – played in shaping and affirming his status as winner of the election, an ordinary man who had been through the fires of the campaign to emerge victorious as “their leader”. Today in class, we are watching Justin Trudeau’s 2015 acceptance speech alongside our reading of J.L. Austin’s theory of performative language; we will be analysing the ways in which Trudeau’s vocal performance was crafted to enact his governance ethos and promise all-important “change” to Canadians – in other words, to “do” political things, even before he had done a single, real thing as the new prime minister.

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Did you know Justin was once a drama teacher? Outstanding training for PM. (And: he has an arts degree. THAT is what you do with it.)

I sincerely hope that, a year from now, I won’t be switching Obama out for Trump’s victory speech; frankly, Hillary Clinton’s will be (WILL BE) both more inspiring and far more instructive for future students of political performance. At the end of the day, that’s what makes me most angry about this season of Trump trash: he is an utter waste of time, space, and energy, and my students and I have far better things to do with ours.

All this said, I know many of you, especially those of you reading from the U.S., will have brought the election up directly, and at length, in classes; I’d be very keen to hear how you’ve done it, and with what results. Please leave comments! You have my respect and admiration. (And to those of you reading from a campus where guns, concealed or not, are allowed by law, I cannot fathom the risks you take every day to bring up matters critical, if not political.)

Stay strong!

Kim