Interview with Sarah Bay-Cheng

As 2019 drew to a close, I had the pleasure of chatting with Sarah Bay-Cheng, the current Dean of the School of the Arts, Media, Performance and Design at York University in Toronto and one of the co-hosts for On TAP, a podcast dedicated to issues in theater and performance studies and academia.

The following is the first of a two-part interview that covers everything from how different kinds of performance (theatre and sport!) have influenced Sarah’s teaching to how she applies her pedagogical approach in her new position as a dean.


KB: How does your work as a theatre and performance studies researcher inform your pedagogy? How has your approach evolved over time?

SBC: I don’t know that I can think about teaching outside of performance. I’ve always been teaching in performance or performance-related fields and I see teaching itself as an outgrowth of my early theatre training. I was not a very good actor, but I was a pretty good ham and show-off. I found that those skills leant themselves pretty well to animating classrooms and I’ve enjoyed that.

More recently, as I’ve moved into administration, I find that I often think and approach problems in ways that are closely aligned to how I approached problems in theatre and performance work. I see my current role as Dean as very similar to work that I did as a theatre director.

For example, I did one year of an MFA directing program at Purdue University before I left to do my PhD at the University of Michigan. When I was a little baby MFA director, the head of the directing programme, Jim O’Connor, looked at a project of mine and said: “So, Sarah, I see the work that the actors are doing. I see the work the designers have done. I hear what the playwright has written. Where is your work? What are you doing?” I remember being pretty flummoxed. On the one hand, there’s the thought: “Oh but it was my idea and my staging, my vision…” Certainly, that’s one way of thinking about the visibility of the director’s work. But, I would say that the real work is in all the invisible connections between the elements that you can see. It’s the fluidity of a performance. It’s the cultivation of collaboration; it’s the movement of the event as a whole. Where you see my work is where the points of friction have been worn down just enough to function smoothly but not so much that there are gaps or disconnections. For me, that was the real art of the director and I see my role as dean in much the same way.


Both as director and dean, I come into a space and meet a group of diversely talented and opinionated people who are more or less focused on the same problems and have similar questions or challenges. But each person sees those problems and challenges from very different angles, and everyone has very different things to offer. All of these things can be complementary but at any given moment will need more or less attention than another. Like most theatre productions, one needs to pay close attention to resources. And, there’s the perennial collaborative question: How do you get talented people with very strong ideas which might be diametrically opposed to one another to collaborate ?

My job as – what we might call a “creative administrator” – is to create a context in which people can build on their strengths. I need to figure out how to get everyone what they need to be successful, and to step in to resolve conflicts and problems when they arise. My job is to hold “the company” as collaborative community, but with clear direction on what we’re trying to do at any given moment. It’s not perfect, but I find that those metaphors, framework, and training from theatre have been helpful to me.

KB: So much of my pedagogical practice is informed by my experiences with theatre, and particularly sport. Where are some of your teaching influences not in the academy?

SBC: I played a lot of sports as a kid, including basketball very seriously through high school and was recruited to play in college. I ended up playing four years in undergrad and was captain for two of those. And a few years ago when my kids were younger, I had the opportunity to coach 7th and 8th grade girls’ basketball, which was joyful.


When I’m with my students, it’s like a kind of coaching relationship in which there is always a moment – and it’s like this with being a director too – where you want to capture their imagination. But, eventually you take your hands off and just coach here and there. And it’s the same thing in rehearsal process.

One of my teachers, Rita Giomi, used to say that you knew you had the best rehearsal when you said the least. And, it’s really true. It’s in those moment when your team or your cast are taking ownership of the project. And I think there’s a similar trajectory that I try to follow in my classroom.

In the beginning, I’m trying to animate the material and get people excited for what comes next. I’m not afraid to put myself out there or to be unconventional, especially when working with undergraduates. But then eventually it’s about turning control and ownership over to the students so that by the end of the semester I’m saying very little. Or, at least less. And that they are looking to me less and less. It’s very much about what students bring to each other and the group.

Team Captain Badge

As a dean, it’s a little different. My new role is more like that of a team captain. I’m not handing anything over to anyone. They already have it. When I played basketball, I was a point guard, and I see this job as very akin to that. My role is to have vision of the whole floor and to anticipate how the play is developing. What’s coming and what’s moving. Then, my job is to deliver the ball to the people that are going to be most effective and to faciliatate the flow of people working together. I see myself in that capacity – and probably also as head cheerleader. If you talk to me for five minutes (or follow me on twitter), I will tell you how amazing my Faculty is and how great my colleagues are and how lucky I am to be in this community right now, working alongside these talented people. And, it’s true.

KB: That’s amazing. Speaking to your new role, what’s gained and lost in your move to administration? 

SBC: The biggest thing that’s lost is time with students and direct connections to them. I just don’t interact with students very much anymore. I’ll have breakfast and lunch and a couple of “Coffee with the Dean” kinds of things. But, again, it’s more removed: the faculty, staff, and students are doing their thing, and I’m just trying to keep it all humming behind the scenes. It’s rewarding, but I really miss teaching. I may try to do some teaching over the next few years.

But, it’s important that I maintain capacity both in terms of my energy and my time and attention for my colleagues. I take my responsibility and my service to the Faculty very seriously. There are things that are going to come up that only I can address. I miss teaching, and I will look forward to doing it again in whatever capacity it’s there. But I also take a lot of satisfaction in working on developing the systems that I think are delivering a lot of great things to our students.

Interview with Amanda Leduc

Building off last week’s conversation between Kim and Colleen Kim Daniher, this week we’ve got another conversation in the form of interview between Kelsey and author Amanda Leduc. In it, Amanda and I chat about the pedagogy of fairytales, disability representation, writing tips, and responsible social media use for public figures.

KB: Let’s start by having you introduce yourself.

AL: My name is Amanda Leduc. I’m a writer based in Hamilton. In my day job, I work as the communications coordinator for the Festival of Literary Diversity, based in Brampton, Ontario.

I’m also an author. I published a novel in 2013 called The Miracles of Ordinary Men and have a new non-fiction book, coming out in February 2020, called Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space. It’s about how the representation of disability in fairy tales has been historically less than positive but has also influenced how disability is portrayed in the media today. I weave that in with my own narrative as a disabled woman with cerebral palsy. Then, I have another novel coming out hopefully in the Spring of 2021.

Amanda Leduc

KB: As the curator for a pedagogy and performance blog, I’m interested in the teaching element of fairy tales. Do you think fairy tales have changed in terms of their teaching ability?

AL: Fairy tales have always had that didactic purpose. They exist to teach us morals about how to live in the world. In fact, one of the things that’s powerful about fairy tales is that they have a social purpose in terms of reaching for a world that’s better. The hero at the beginning of the fairy tale has a particular kind of life that they want to escape in some shape or form. And in the fairy tales that end happily, they manage to escape that life.

The interesting thing for me is that that model doesn’t really apply to the disabled body. You don’t have stories about how society needs to change. You have stories about personal transformation: the ugly beast is made beautiful at the end of the tale and marries the beautiful princess.

I was really transfixed by this idea that the disabled, othered, body has to change in a fairy tale in order for some sort of happy ending or conclusion to come about. It’s never society that changes. Disability is almost a character flaw or some sort of physical flaw that can be overcome if someone just wants to do it badly enough. When you, then, apply that fairy tale framework to the stories that we tell in modern day, a lot of those same threads continue to perpetuate myths and stereotypes of disability.

This is the kind of conversation that’s been going on in disability activism and disability studies for decades but in the mainstream world, it hasn’t been talked about as much.

The cover from Amanda’s upcoming book

KB: How do you see yourself intervening in that?

AL: I hope that my new book will get people thinking differently about the way the disabled body is portrayed in fairy tales.

Fairy hit us at such a young age that they really have a lasting impact on the way we move through the world. And the way that we approach certain kinds of stories. Their stories offer very pervasive, insidious, ways of teaching young children especially about disability. And very specific, hard, ideas, about what it means to be different in the world.

I think that’s changing, but it’s still there.

I also think we need to be increasing disability representation. There’s a real thing that happens where people like myself, who have a disability that is maybe milder than others, work to minimize their disability. I worked for a large portion of my life to pretend that my disability wasn’t there because I didn’t feel I could be accepted in the world as a person with a disability.

If we normalize disability and normalize the idea that the world is full of people who are all different shapes and sizes and have different abilities and do different things, it doesn’t become this othering. We all have different needs, and we can build a world that can accommodate those different needs but we have to do it together.

KB: Switching gears, many of our readers do a lot of writing. What are your top three tips for getting writing done?


      Step One: Put your bum in the chair. That has to happen.

The most dreaded piece of furniture for any writer.

             Step Two: Try to minimize distractions. I need to put my phone far away and turn off social media notifications on my computer. Disconnect the Internet if possible.

          Step Three: Create a ritual around the writing. I make sure I have nice cup of tea. I make sure the chair is comfortable and that the desk is clean. I put some nice music on. That helps it feel like an enjoyable experience. Because, you know, sometimes writing is not. So, at least if I have the trappings of things that I like around me, I can delve into the work. That might be frustrating but it’s still enjoyable on some level because I’m surrounded by things that I love.

KB: In addition to being a writer, you’re also an active social media user. Kim and I have chatted a lot about the quagmire of using social media as an information dissemination and pedagogical tool. What’s your experience of social media been like?

AL: Twitter has undergone a really interesting evolution over the last ten years. It used to be this optimistic and lovely place for people to come together with like-minded groups of people. Now, it has transmorphed into to a place that is better in some ways because it’s really offered a platform for communities that might not get the opportunity to speak otherwise, like the disability community, which is very active on Twitter. But, also just because you can say something doesn’t necessarily mean that you should.

Screenshot from a video embedded in a super interesting article on twitter and violence against women from Amnesty International:

KB: What would your three social media tips be for educators and researchers?

AL: As someone who is specifically as an educator, you really have a difficult line to walk in terms of allowing some of your personality in your public profile. This is what endears people to you. It’s what helps build a community. But, also, you can’t reveal too much or be too “real” if you will. That’s hard.

          First, be sure to inject some personality into your social media but then also be very careful and strategic about the boundaries you put in place to protect yourself and others.

          Second, set out very clear boundaries for yourself: these are the kinds of interactions that I will not engage in.

          Third, one of the things that’s been most helpful for me is thinking of social media as a conversation. It has been just as fascinating to listen to Twitter conversations as it has been to participate in them. I think that’s an important thing to keep in mind. It’s important always to be listening as much, if not more, than speaking. Because it’s a learning process for all of us. Students and teachers alike.

Thanks, Amanda!

For more on Amanda’s upcoming book, Disfigured On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space, go here.
















Joanne Tompkins Interview Part II

This is the second part of a two-part interview with Professor Joanne Tompkins, who currently seconded from her position at the University of Queensland to work with the Australian Research Council as Executive Director of the Humanities and Creative Arts panel. (Click here for part one.)

Joanne Tomkins

Joanne Tompkins

On Classroom Behaviour and Technology in the Classroom

KB: How do think technology has shifted in the classroom for you? Or has it?

JT:  Hugely … I’m still getting used to the fact that people are on their phones throughout my ARC presentations for many different reasons. I get a lot of people leaving half way through. An academic may be upset if a student leaves their class, but they have no compunction about leaving my presentation. There may be 50 reasons why they’re leaving and that’s fine. But, I find it fascinating that most don’t make the connection that in effect they are students in this context. And they are doing exactly what bothers them about their students.

KB: 100 per cent. I came up against my own learning moment around that in September. I don’t love it when students take pictures of my slides. And, during my French classes last month, I totally caught myself taking pictures of the board. On the one hand, I was like: “Kelsey Blair, you’re doing the thing that you hate when students do it to you.” And, on the other hand, I thought: “But, it’s way easier this way!”

JT:  Yes … yes. But, I guess if I think back to when I first started teaching, we would also have to remind students to bring a notebook and pencils. We’d get the students who would come to a tutorial and assume that they were just going to ‘perform.’ It’s been a huge shift.

KB: And, as a teacher, there is always the issue of how to use technology. I often have heated debates with myself about whether or not to post lecture slides, and, if I do, whether it will affect in-lecture attendance.

JT: One of the things I’ve seen over years with students is exactly that: assuming that lectures are optional. Apparently “nothing really happens in them; I don’t need this material. I can find it myself.” I would explain to students at the beginning of the year, perhaps too soon in the semester, sure you can find all of this information out there on the Internet. But think about how much work I’ve done to narrow it, to select the best information, to shape it, to winnow out the stuff that is out there. Take advantage of the work I’ve done: I’m giving you this information.

Looking Backward; Looking Forward: Advice to Past and Future Selves

KB: If you could offer three pieces of advice to your former teaching self, what would they be? And: where do you want to grow in your teaching self, whatever context that might take on?

JT: Good questions … Three pieces of advice to my former: relax, trust, enjoy. Don’t be so panicky. Trust that you do know more than you think you know. And, enjoy the experience. Not that it’s always enjoyable. Sometimes it’s hard work. But, it’s wonderful in those times when you actually make that connection, whether it’s with students or, for me now, with my peers.

Looking forward: It’s really hard because when I finish next year at the ARC, I have a semester of study leave to work on a book and then I don’t know what I’m doing in 2021. I’m thinking that I will still inevitably be in a role that has a pedagogical element to it but it’s very much a “watch this space,” for me. I don’t know what I’m going to be doing but I’m actually happy with that. That’s not the scary thing I would’ve thought it would be. Can we talk in the future?

KB: Of course. You can expect to hear from me in 2021!

Joanne Tompkins Interview Part 1

Professor Joanne Tompkins — currently seconded from her position at the University of Queensland  to work with the Australian Research Council as Executive Director of the Humanities and Creative Arts panel — kindly agreed to chat with me about performance and pedagogy, and I couldn’t be more excited to share what emerged from our conversation!

Joanne Tomkins
Professor Joanne Tompkins-

We talked across a range of subjects from performing in a classroom over time to costuming to teaching to different audiences.  We chatted so much, in fact, that the conversation will be spread across two posts!

Rather than edit our conversation into the appearance of formal interview, Joanne and I curated excerpts around key topics.

This post’s topics include: “Performing in the Classroom” and “On Teaching to Different Kinds of Audiences.” Part II will feature “Classroom Behaviours,” “Technology in the Classroom,” plus “Looking Forward and Looking Backwards: On Teaching Over Time.”


A teacher, performing in the classroom.

On Performing in the Classroom:

KB: I tend to approach teaching from the perspective that there is always a performance-element to teaching and that element is immensely personal. Is that true for you?

JT: Yes. Absolutely. I’m not a performer in the formal sense at all. I’m not an actor or director. But maybe if we all have a percentage of a performer in us, that’s where mine comes out.

KB: Do you think your performance has changed overtime? How did it look in that first classroom as a TA? How did it look somewhere in the middle? How does it look now?

JT: It has changed. Certainly, if I could look at now first: my confidence levels are much higher. One of the things that I have taught new teachers is to remember that you know more than the students do; remember that you can answer their questions, and in the cases where you can’t, this is what you do: say “Interesting question. Let’s all think about this for next time” – but make sure you return to it next class.

Now, I know I can rely on experience to answer those tricky questions, and in my current position, it’s politically tricky ones as well as the intellectually tricky ones. There’s that confidence of knowing how to do it and knowing I can do it. That assurance is what comes with age and experience.

In the middle, I would’ve gone into a classroom, adrenaline always running, and having enough materials with me to be prepared for anything. So, if the class plan failed, there was a backup plan, even if not a formal one. If the students had all of a sudden read the material and wanted more, I was ready. If they hadn’t read the play at all, I had different ways of dealing with that. Because, while I knew I had the reserves, I wasn’t always sure I could rely on them in the moment.

At the beginning, it was just fear and trepidation (laughs) and the constant self-doubt about “can I do this?!”

KB: How do you feel that your outside, formal work and your self in the classroom integrate? Or do they integrate?

JT: I think they do and they don’t. I would go back to what I said about the performance comment. I think I do perform in a classroom. People I know well might be surprised to see me in the classroom. It’s not Jekyl and Hyde but I am more expressive in the classroom, trying to bring the students or audience with me physically as well as intellectually. So, I think that’s the big difference. I know I did that when I was lecturing at the University and I know I do it in my current role now. I ask questions like “do you understand what I mean? Am I making sense?” a lot.


Scarf: essential wardrobe piece for Kelsey’s teaching costume

KB: Has that changed over time?

JT: I don’t think it would’ve been the same when I was in my Masters (when I first began teaching) because I was still very much developing that persona–or what an appropriate persona was and trying to keep it together. I can remember wearing suits: dressing up (it was the 80s!). I had a costume. I was young too, so it was my way of setting boundarires which worked for me. It probably didn’t matter to the students!

KB: That’s super interesting. For me, who was an athlete in my undergrad, I was always the kid in the back of class in sweatpants. So, when I was first TAing, I really had to figure out the costuming, to find the balance between setting a boundary and my personal style – which tends to be more laid back.

JT: It does take a while, but you’ve hit something. Every time you move geographically or move into a different teaching role, there are those specific geographic/contextual differences.

KB: Yes, and I’ve found that it shifts over time as well. I have tended to read a little closer in age to my students than I am. They’re often checking my cultural references to place me in time. It doesn’t bother me but I realize eventually I’m not going to going to read that way anymore. It’s already happening as a basketball coach. I used to read like their older sister. That isn’t true anymore. And, it changes how I can relate to players, which changes how I coach them.

JT: I find the cultural references fascinating. I had prided myself for a long time on being able to maintain them. Certainly more with the main television programs. Then, I could tell I was starting to lose it.

That’s one of the things that — to be totally honest — terrifies me about walking back into a classroom after having been out of it for so long in various administration positions: that I will have truly lost a connection to the students. I’m not sure how to engage with young people now in a way that gives them the examples they need.

But I can still do it in my ‘teaching’ now, which takes the shape of outreach to universities, because they’re more my peers. They need the cultural referents as much as other kinds of connection, and I have those at my fingertrips.

On Teaching to Different Kinds of Audiences

KB: What are the differences between teaching to peers vs teaching to people that would identify as students?

JT: Let me separate first, students in a university vs academics in a university and the kind of work I’m doing now. One of the things I’ve been thinking about in advance of this chat is the kind of teaching I do now. One part of my job is going out to universities or to academic organizations to talk to people who want to know how better to understand and be successful at getting Australian Research Council grants. What I do now is kind of equivalent to teaching but it’s to my peers.

With the university student, I would typically demonstrate how fascinating and exciting I found this material to be and use that as a means to bring them along. Obviously, it doesn’t work every time. But, by and large, I could make it work.

Now, my audiences are, I guess one of the best ways to describe them, is skeptical. These are my peer audiences. They know how competitive ARC grants are and they’re skeptical about their abilities to get them and they’re skeptical about my abilities to tell them anything they don’t already know.

I work very hard to get past that skepticism with tips and tricks, changes to the rules, ways to shape your wonderful project to engage your assessors.

The more transparent I can make an otherwise opaque system, the more likely audience members are to feel that they got something out of a presentation. And that’s my aim in my current form of teaching: to make the system much more transparent than it often is. I try to make it seem doable without ever hiding how low, shall we say, the success rates actually are.


In a classroom, the people who sit in in the chairs matter.

KB: Are there any prep or structural differences in your approach to teaching peers?

JT: I have to leave a lot of time for questions. I’m not one of those people that insists on presenting and then leaves time for questions. I always insist that if you’ve got a question, you ask it as I’m going through. But it always takes a while for the first person to get the courage to put their hand up.

That’s not something that you can always do in, say, a lecture context. But, what is interesting, even with colleagues, is that I still get that fear of asking the dumb question. That fear doesn’t go away. You don’t want to be embarrassed in front of your peers.

Tune in next post for the second half of our conversation!