Half term pulse check (part 1)

Reading week! Also known as: Fly to Jamaica Week. For me, though, it’s almost always Fly to London Week. I’m in the UK right now for work meetings, plenty of theatre-going, and, of course, catching up with the friends (actually, more like family) I left behind when I moved from Queen Mary back to Western in August 2014.


Getting away for reading week has a number of advantages (for faculty and students alike). It’s necessary, I think, to get physically as well as mentally away from the classroom for a time, just to check in with ourselves and make sure we’re taking care of the needs that often go ignored in the term. (Proper nutrition! Proper sleep! Game of Thrones! OK, so I am so not a GofT person, but I know all y’all know what I mean.) For me, reading week is always a pleasure in part for the excuse it affords to check out of my head and back into my body for a few days. But it’s also a pleasure because it provides a welcome, comparatively relaxed opportunity for me to take the pulse of the classes I’m teaching and work out if anything needs tweaking or changing as we head into Term 2, Part 2.

This winter term I’m teaching two classes at Western: 20th Century Theatre (an English and Writing Studies course), and Performance Beyond Theatres (aka Performance Studies, a core course in our Theatre Studies program). 20th Century Theatre is a full year class, and I invited the students in that group to fill out an anonymous survey at the mid-point (Christmas break); I then made micro-adjustments after going through their responses with my TA Meghan before we returned in January. In Performance Beyond Theatres, though, THIS is the midpoint, so I did a quick survey with them last Thursday, specifically focused on the blended learning experiment we’ve been doing in that class this semester.

[What’s blended learning? Click here.]

This post is about that experiment, the students’ feedback on how it’s gone so far, and my response to that feedback. (My next post will be about the utterly amazing artists’ talk we held in 20th Century Theatre just before the break – inspirational, fun, and provocative. Look forward to that one.)


Back at Christmas time, my friend and colleague from Brock University Natalie Alvarez and I embarked on an utterly mad teaching experiment. We decided to mingle our two undergraduate performance studies classes online in order to give our students on our separate campuses (about 200km apart in real space) some value-added learning opportunities. Why the hell? Well, for one thing, performance studies is still a relatively new phenomenon in Canada, and especially in undergraduate classrooms in Canada; Nat’s class and mine were thus not only unique birds, but they were also, kismet-like, happening at the same time. We therefore figured some kind of co-teach model would offer our students exposure to one another and to our shared expertise in the field as teachers and researchers, as well as an opportunity to collaborate on some pretty unique assignments. (We also hoped the experiment would set a precedent for blended learning opportunities in our separate departments going forward).

IMG_1925 (At right: Nat + me in Portland, before the blended learning madness overcame us.)

So, armed with optimism, courage, and a couple of drinks, we put together a shared course WordPress site (which needs to remain private, as it’s a place for learning, trial and error – no links here), created a short intro video explaining our logic to the class, and then committed to trial running the virtual portion of the course until reading week, when we would ask the students whether or not it was worth continuing.

The layout of our blended course has looked like this so far. Each week, one or the other of us creates an online lecture based on the week’s readings. (Our course outlines are not fully identical, but our readings and our assignments are deliberately matched.) That lecture is meant to be about 25 minutes long, and it includes a task for the students to do in the remaining 25 or so minutes of what we call their “virtual hour”. For example, during the week on Michel de Certeau’s “Walking in the City,” I delivered an online discussion of the reading, focusing on three key ideas, and followed that with a video demonstration (starring my dear friend and collaborator D.J. Hopkins) of the task I set for the group for the week.

(My demo with D.J. during de Certeau week: a taste of the student experience.)

Following this virtual hour labour, our individual classes have met live each week for two further hours in order to work through both our reading materials and the materials each student produces as part of their task work. (Each student has also been required to comment on one other student’s task materials in order to demonstrate online engagement; typically, my students comment on work by Brock students, while the Brock students, who are part of a much larger group, look at one another’s materials as well as Western students’ materials in equal portions). In typical “flipped classroom” fashion, we try to use our face-to-face meetings to explore challenges in the readings, work through problems we’ve encountered in making sense of them, and nuance our thinking about our weekly subject matter as much as possible. (IE: no lectures here.)

I’ve personally found our online work really gratifying, humbling, and instructive. It’s been a significant challenge for me to learn how to use video tools in a not-crap way (I’ve been teaching myself Screenflow, for example, and have figured out how to do basic video editing in Quicktime as well). As I rarely lecture in my “real” teaching life, I’ve also found preparing and delivering the online lecture materials a useful way to rethink stagnating elements of my own pedagogical practice. (Yes, active learning friends: lecturing does have some real advantages.) The materials my students have produced in response to the weekly online lectures have been consistently of a high calibre, and some of them have been simply outstanding. I always find they contain insights worth pulling out in “real time” classes, and frequently those insights lead us on to further discoveries.

The process has not been without bumps, though. In part because Nat and I are in no way AV experts our online materials have often been posted to our shared website later than planned, and other hiccups have occasionally interrupted their sharing. (Last week Youtube blocked my lecture on Judith Butler because one of the videos I embedded, by the awesome feminist performance artist The Famous Lauren Barri Holstein, contained a Backstreet Boys audio track. Welcome to the neoliberal classroom!) On the content side, sometimes in class I’ve felt like we’re treading ground already familiar from the lecture, and I find I have to really challenge myself to get the balance between concept reinforcement and further concept development right. (This is much harder than it sounds.)

So what do the students think so far? On our mid-term surveys we asked three questions:

  1. What have you found productive/useful about the virtual hour labour?
  2. What have you found unhelpful, or unproductive?
  3. Would you like to continue with the virtual hour after reading week?

The feedback did not provide a consensus – half the students wanted to keep the virtual hour, while the other half did not! – but it did prove remarkably consistent. Most students said they found the online lectures helpful and clarifying – and we’d already sensed in class that this was the case. They also, however, said that the lectures were too long and that the tasks plus lecture consumed easily more than an hour (more like 1.5 hours, in fact) each week.

The students are not wrong: by the end of our first six weeks our online lectures had crept well beyond 30 minutes (my last one was 43 minutes! Yikes!), and of course Nat and I easily forgot (as many teachers do) that students always take much longer than we do to complete any learning task – they are simply less experienced learners and so inevitably slower. I found myself, a bit embarrassed, thinking back to my review of Martin Bickman’s book back in January, and to his comment about how he, at least, was never bored by his own lectures… without question Nat and I fell a bit in love with our own commentary on our favourite performance studies topics, and forgot about our stopwatches.

At the same time, though, we found ourselves thinking carefully about the implications of this feedback for our teaching more broadly. After all, what the students’ comments reveal is that there simply isn’t enough time in any given teaching week to cover complex topics as fully as we might like to do – or as we believe we need to do.

Now, of course, we all know this is true: it’s a teacherly cliche to complain there’s not enough time! It’s also easy to forget, however, that you’re blabbing on too long or trying to cover too much when you can just run long in a live classroom hour and pick up the following week where you left off; I’m as guilty as everyone else of bad classroom time management. To our surprise, however, our virtual hour sessions seemed to operate like a pace car, showing us in real time how little teaching time we’re actually working with – and thus how prudent we actually need to be with our answer to the all-important question, “how much is actually enough?”

So what’s next for the blended experiment? We’ve decided to try one more virtual hour, and in it to enforce a rigorous 20-minute online lecture cut-off time. (REALLY.) We’ll do a further, quick pulse-check at the end of that week and then make a decision about the remaining three sessions – online, or go live, according to a student vote. Whatever the results of that vote, though, I know I’ve taken from this first trial run a total classroom time-management recalibration, which can only be a good thing.



Instructor extraneous! (a post from the hip)

My favourite classroom experiences are the ones driven by effective in-class group work: when the task is both clear and interesting, the students are into it, and the room works WITHOUT ME.

Today in my 20th Century Theatre class we talked about immersive theatre, with particular reference to Griselda Gambaro‘s politically charged Information For Foreigners, a dispatch from Argentina’s murderous Dirty War. (Hats off to my fab TA, Meghan O’Hara, for an engaging lecture that detailed Punchdrunk’s infamous Sleep No More to set the scene).

In order to get a handle on the often confusing and jam-packed scenes in Gambaro’s play, we created visual maps of the work using those fun-and-games tools – chart paper and coloured pens! – that are (ahem) typical of grade-school classrooms… but are JUST AS EFFECTIVE for adult learners. And we had good, clean, productive fun indeed.

Herewith, some of the snaps I got to take when it turned out I was not needed!

When students grade each other (and other peer-assessment challenges)

I’m a big fan of group work in the classroom. Partly, this is because it takes a group to make a piece of theatre, and I teach theatre; partly this is because life is all about working in groups of people, and working in groups of people is astonishingly hard.

Just ask this person:


Or, ask students (including my TA this year, Madison Bettle) if they like group work, and you usually get two kinds of responses:

“it’s ok/I’m fine with it” (translation: other people do the work, so it’s pretty great!/I love doing all the work, so it’s pretty great!),


“I find it difficult” (translation: I do all the work, and I really resent it).

So why do I persist? It’s simple: learning to be a better collaborator is as important to living and working in the world as is learning to breathe. It’s a pity more of us don’t place an emphasis on effective group skills in our teaching, because, man, oh man, do we all need it!

Over the years, I’ve approached the challenge of group dynamics in my theatre studies classrooms in a variety of ways. I’ve asked students to put on scene studies in groups, but not for grades; the students loved this work, but often resented not getting marks for it. (Understandable, if sad and depressing.) I’ve asked students to put on scene studies in groups for grades; the students loved this work, but found it incredibly annoying when a member (or more) of the group slacked off and got the grade anyway. (Friends: call it collateral damage and then call it a day.)

This year, I took a slightly more complicated approach: I asked students to put on scene studies in groups for grades, and then I asked them to contribute to their final marks by grading each other.

This is the story of how that turned out.

Last Thursday, the students in my 20th Century Drama class had just one job: to get into their performance groups, answer a series of questions, and come to a conclusion about what grade(s) the various members of the group deserved for their efforts this year. The student-generated grades (which I would respect, regardless of difficulties) would make up 5/15 marks for the performance component of the class; the performance component of the class would make up 15/100 marks for the class as a whole. (In other words: some pressure, but not a tonne of pressure.)

As Charlotte Bell explained in this space last autumn, students need clear tools to assist with peer grading. This is the task I set to help the students manage the challenge (and it is, of course, a challenge!) of grading themselves and one another:


Part One:

On your own, please respond to the following questions, in writing. You have ten minutes.

  1. What were my greatest strengths as a group member this year? List up to THREE traits, and include details explaining each.
  2. What were my greatest weaknesses as a group member this year? List up to THREE traits, and include details explaining each.
  3. Where did my group excel this year? For example, when and how did we meet our own expectations? Summarize your feelings, and describe one or two key occasions where the group achieved what it set out to do.
  4. Where did my group fall short of its own expectations this year? Summarize, and describe one or two key occasions where you feel the group could have done better.
  5. What grade would I assign my group for our year’s efforts?
  6. What grade would I assign myself, as a group member?

Part Two:

In a pair WITHIN your group, please discuss your responses to Part One, and then respond to the following questions. Remember to be honest, respectful, supportive AND FAIR.

  1. Where did our group excel, and where did it fall short of expectations? Summarize your individual findings (take notes!), and then decide if, on balance,
    1. You excelled much more than you fell short
    2. You excelled a bit more than you fell short
    3. You sometimes excelled, but often also fell short
    4. You largely fell short.
  2. Based on your individual reflections, and also on your comments and choice above, what grade would you assign your group for this year? (Choose a number, based on the letter category that corresponded with your choice above.)
  3. Are there members of your group who went beyond the call of group work duty? If so, choose whether or not to assign them bonus marks.
  4. Are there members of your group who let the group down? If so, choose if and how to penalize them.

Part Three:

As a group, discuss your findings and share your tentative grades.

Negotiate: what final grades will you assign each group member? What comments will you include to support your grade choices?

Type your comments and grades. Note that the comments should be about a paragraph long (no more).

Send your comments and grades to Kim, via email.

When I created this template, I worked hard to take as many differing voices into account as possible, mindful that students would have (potentially) different impressions of how things had gone in their group. What I forgot, I realise now, is that having different impressions of how things have gone is very different from being able (or feeling able securely) to express how things have gone to a group member with whose opinion you might not fully agree. My template seeks to be academic in its objectivity – but, as teachers all know, objectivity is extremely difficult to achieve when assigning anyone, let alone one another, grades for our shared efforts.

The Thursday of our peer assessment exercise arrived, and we did – I thought! – pretty well. The students were lively and cheerful in their group chats in class; most of them emailed me happily with shared or individuated group grades shortly after. I annotated my class notes (this is my habit, to preserve some kind of institutional memory for future years), and called it a win.

But then, two things happened.

First, I was approached by a group that had run into trouble: one of their members had been perennially absent for meetings and prep, but had always arrived in time to claim the glory. In our peer assessment exercise they had manifested no remorse (or even awareness!), and the rest of the group had felt uncomfortable confronting them. Result? The group had agreed on a shared grade, but now deeply regretted it.

Second, I received what I thought was a truly heartening email from another group featuring a member often absent; by all accounts it sounded like that student had stepped up in peer assessment, owned their mistakes, and agreed on a lesser grade.

I was thrilled that for one failure another success had resulted. I also realized, at that point, that it would be helpful to get the students’ feedback on how the peer assessment exercise had gone, since I had two very different pieces of evidence to account for.

On our last day together, I posed the following question:

How did it go for you and your group? Reflect in writing for ONE minute; aim to indicate something of value, and also to make one suggestion for improvement.

Given the balance of evidence at hand, I expected a fair amount of positivity in the students’ responses. Instead, I got this (incredibly valuable! – But somewhat unexpected) feedback:

  • It was difficult to discuss group issues in a class setting – can we give people the option to find another space to talk?
  • It was difficult because most of our groups became close over the year: we were worried about upsetting the group dynamic;
  • Could we try anonymous grading? People don’t want to address people to their face if they feel others have not done their share;
  • Could you (Kim, the teacher) shield us from the harshest of comments but still express our concerns?
  • Could we try doing group work assessment at the half-point during the year?

Looking at this feedback now, as I write this post, I’m surprised at myself. How did I not realise the difficulties inherent in the peer grading template I’d designed? Of course I’d known it would be hard for students to confront group members who did not pull their weight; what I’d forgotten (hello!) was that I had rather a lot more experience in grading underperforming students than most students do – and thus that I really needed to provide some hard-core emotional and intellectual guidance to the students needing to do this work now.

How do you tell someone you’ve grown to like, and even to love, that they let you down in your shared work? How do you assign them a number?

One of the groups facing challenges chose to let sleeping dogs lie; the other, however, ended up revisiting their assessment and grades. I met with two representatives in my office today to talk through what had happened. One member, felt by the others not to have pulled their weight, had been assigned a lesser grade after the fact by the remaining members of the group; that member felt, correctly, that they had not been given the chance to speak or respond to accusations. The other member represented the majority feeling: that the first member was well liked and respected but had put in far less work, and thus deserved a lesser grade. [That member also explained that the others, who had spent a long time after class talking about how to account for this disparity, did not feel comfortable confronting their peer in class – whether wrongly or rightly, they felt sincerely that their peer would not be willing to fully hear and accept their critique, and they did not want to disrupt their group’s friendly dynamic by pushing the issue.]

Our meeting was fruitful but hard; I know both students worked to be respectful and not to get overly emotional about the stakes involved. (And here I have to say how much I respect the efforts of both in this regard!) I acted as a mediator for this meeting, and I learned two very important things from it.

First (duh!) that I needed to create a safer space for all of my students to share their group feedback. In our debrief of the peer assessment one student suggested we feed back anonymously; rather, I suspect, what needs to happen is that I, as instructor, need to a) create multiple moments of low-pressure feedback throughout the year, culminating in b) a meeting of the group with me in which we decide on shared or individuated grades. My role as mediator is crucial, and it cannot happen in the classroom; it needs to happen in my office, or in another semi-private space where students feel able to speak honestly and openly.

Second, that (hello again!) all group feedback is marked by social privilege, including gender privilege: this was absolutely the case in our meeting, and it brought home to me the lived significance of how these kinds of privilege impact student voices in the classroom, though few students realize it. The way we approach and respond to one another depends on how confident we have become in our own voices and perspectives, be they gendered, raced, or classed. In today’s meeting – which, I want to stress, happened between me and two very mature and thoughtful young adults – I was reminded of this research by Colin Latchem:

Although it is important to avoid gender stereotyping and acknowledge that there can be considerable variations within each gender and particular context, there is a considerable amount of research on psychological gender differences in communications. In general, men are held to construct and maintain an independent self-construal (Cross & Madson, 1997). As a consequence, men tend to be more independent and assertive, use language to establish and maintain status and dominate in relationships, and transmit information and offer advice in order to achieve tangible outcomes. By contrast, women tend to be more expressive, tentative, and polite in conversation, valuing cooperation and using dialogue in order to create and foster intimate bonds with others by talking about issues they communally face (Basow & Rubenfeld, 2003).

Today’s meeting reminded me that I cannot simply give students space to express their feelings about one another’s work; I need to make space in which those feelings can be safely and effectively expressed regardless of social privilege.

Next year, I plan to invite performance groups to feed back to each other informally a few times over the year, and I plan to take an active role in that feedback in order to help students to understand what they are saying to one another, and how they are saying it. At the end of it all we’ll have a chat, and I’ll be a part of it; I’ll try to mediate group challenges, but I’ll also make an effort to talk about how seemingly invisible power dynamics impact what is said between group members, and how.

Because group work isn’t just about students working in groups; it’s about students learning the very human skills of talking to each other across race, gender, class and other social and ethnic boundaries. They need our help to do this well – and we owe it to them, and to our larger world, to help them do it.



Lower the stakes 2.0: some anecdotal evidence to end the semester

A while back I wrote about the pedagogical, and ethical, value of lowering the stakes for students in routine assignments such as essays. My discussion in that case was relatively theoretical; primarily, it focused on the research of José Antonio Bowen. Yesterday, however, I gathered some terrific anecdotal evidence about how the small gestures we make in the classroom to “raise the bar” by “lowering the stakes” really do have qualitatively significant outcomes for students.

This week marks the end of the teaching year at Queen Mary Drama. To cap the semester, my final-year students in “Shakespeare After Shakespeare” presented work toward their final essays; their presentations are a formal assessment, and are worth 20% of their grade in the class. From the beginning of the semester I emphasised to them that these presentations were designed to share initial work on those essays, and that the best presentations would not provide fully thought-through work, but rather initial claims, initial research questions, and good questions for the class to prompt both discussion and helpful feedback. (In other words, I aimed to make the presentations part of a surreptitious “do-over” exercise, not unlike the one I discuss in the post I link to above). Two weeks ago, we did practice group presentations in class; these were created in just fifteen minutes and were not marked. I billed them as a chance to get some feedback on presentation style, and I talked about how many undergraduate students present their work poorly because they haven’t thought much about, or had much direct feedback on, the importance of clarity, pacing, and confidence in oral presentations. (I’ve written about this issue on the blog in the past too; check out this post.) Then, last week, the first wave of students presented; yesterday, we ended our work together with a marathon session of twelve (twelve!) presentations.

Do-over or not, practice or none, I knew the students would be nervous sharing their work, and I knew they’d also be apprehensive yet excited about the arrival of the semester’s end (for quite a few, this was to be their last undergraduate class ever). I also knew we’d be rushed to fit in all the remaining presenters in a two-hour class. In response to this mixed context, I set to work on lowering the stakes further, and upping the enjoyment quotient as far as possible. I moved us out of our usual, rather oppressively institutional room in a nearby mixed-use humanities building, and into one of our department’s familiar spaces, Rehearsal Room One. I booked an extra half hour in the space, knowing we were likely going to need it, and I warned the students in advance that we’d probably run overtime (and that they were free to leave at the regular end of lesson if necessary). I baked a cake (which actually turned out quite well!) and arrived early to make two caffetieres of coffee, laying everything out at a dedicated refreshment table in the space. We started with a few very brief announcements, and with my encouragement to get up and get coffee, cake, or go to the bathroom as needed, because the race to the finish was about to begin.

The students each presented for only five minutes. (As my colleague [and excellent teacher] Catherine Silverstone told me when I began at QM, five minutes is more than enough time for an undergraduate presentation: any longer and the students over-prepare and over-fret, with outcomes diminishing proportionally.) Following their formal talk, they conducted a five-minute feedback chat with their peers and me, based on questions they had prepared for us in advance. I timed everyone rigorously, but very few ran over; similarly, I participated in the feedback discussions, but tried my best to let the students lead them. Overall, I worked to foster a low-key, low-stress environment in which everyone would feel comfortable sharing their half-formed ideas, knowing that half-formed was exactly what was expected – along, of course, with openness to moving in new directions based on feedback.

My subjective impression is that my strategies, taken together, had the desired effect: the students gave some really strong performances. Compared to past presentations of this kind, these were generally really well paced, and many students spoke with impressive confidence. A few whom I feared would cower did not; in fact, their work was among the best in the bunch! Everyone seemed a bit nervous, but most seemed quite comfortable on balance in front of me and their peers. And, to my great glee, a few included hilarious yet pertinent Keynotes and Prezis, making their serious subject matter both interesting and fun.

Those were my impressions; imagine my delight, then, when two of the students approached me after class to let me know how much they appreciated my efforts to “lower the stakes” (their own words!) for the presentation assignment. They commented on how my change in the tone of the task allowed them to see its real point: to talk with peers about what they were working on, share ideas, and get feedback they could chew on, work out, and then maybe (or perhaps not) use, as they saw fit. They mentioned that they had had other presentation experiences where the atmosphere was different and these outcomes did not result; while they didn’t elaborate, I can guess that they were referring to presentations that felt more like “test” than “test-out-your-ideas”. While of course there’s an important place for the former in university – after all, performing under pressure is a very big part of professional labour in the so-called “real world”, including in the world of professional theatre – I think the latter needs to predominate in most learning environments. For one thing, it’s an important precursor to the higher-stakes presentation: it’s where you learn to find your voice, own your space, and present your ideas with confidence. For another, it’s simply more collegial: why teach students that great ideas emerge from our brains fully formed, when the truth is the best intellectual work is always collaborative, and always evolving? I hope this is exactly what our presentation task taught my great group of finalists; I certainly learned more about the benefits of lowering the stakes from watching them present their work over these past two weeks.

Plus, we ate some pretty damn nice cake!


(Parsnip cinnamon cake, from Abel&Cole. Click here for the recipe.)

Happy spring break, everyone!


Activating the activists: The Activist Classroom goes to the University of Michigan

Two weeks ago I had the privilege of visiting the University of Michigan, where I gave a talk and a graduate seminar for students working in drama, English literature, and related fields. My talk was about my current research project (“Realism After Neoliberalism”), but my graduate seminar was framed by issues related to the blog. I wanted to take the opportunity afforded by a 90-minute discussion with graduate students I didn’t already know or work with to push at some of the core terms and ideas on which the blog is based, and to get a sense from them of what being “activist” in one’s teaching actually means, might mean, or perhaps should not mean. The students – Phil, Claudia, Charisse, Matt, Ann, Lauren, and a couple of others who wanted to remain anonymous for the purposes of this post – did not disappoint; over the course of the seminar we compared strategies, anxieties, and they helped me to interrogate and even unsettle (in a good way!) some of my core beliefs about activist classrooms.


I organised the session around four “prompts” – questions I posed to the group in succession about a series of related ideas. I offered a prompt, we free-wrote quietly in response to it for about 5 minutes, then we paired up (different pairings each time) and shared our thoughts locally before debriefing as a group and then moving on to the next prompt. This is an extension of thinking/writing exercises I use often in my undergraduate classes, altered here based on the nature of the session, its audience and purposes – talking to junior colleagues who are also beginning teachers.

These were the prompts:

1. What do you aim to do – really do – when you teach?

(This is a “tell me your teaching philosophy” prompt, but it asks you to reflect on your philosophy before you write it down, rather than repeat what you think you should be saying in your teaching portfolio.)

2. What does the word “activism” mean to you? Is it a word with which you identify?

(This question asks you to think about the term in any context that makes sense to you; that context need not be the classroom.)

3. For you, what would be the most important features of an “activist” classroom?

(Here, feel free to reflect on what you think might be activist teaching practice, or conditions for activist learning. Or both.)

4. Do you have concerns about the terms/ideas we’ve been working with today? How might we address these concerns in a productive way in our teaching practice, or in our teaching training?

(The idea of “activist” teaching or learning motivates me, but also carries some potentially troubling connotations. Should teaching be activist? What should the limits of a teacher’s “activism” be? What parameters should we be setting for ourselves? I’m aware here of anxiety in the North American public sphere around “activist” judges, for example. While I tend to sympathise with judicial “activism”, that’s because it often swings my way ideologically. I’m fully aware that my sympathy is a matter of my political perspective and also my cultural privilege – two things my students are absolutely not required to share. What, then, are the risks of activism in my diverse and poly-perspectival classrooms?)

Below is a brief summary, based on notes taken and shared by participant Ann, of three key problems we worked over during our time together.

1. Community.

In relation to my first prompt, several of us wrote separately about the notion of community-building in the classroom. I spend a lot of time working on making my classrooms true communities, partly because the students I teach need to be able to trust one another enough to become vulnerable in performance. Some of the other members of the seminar talked about related problems in English lit or Freshman Comp classrooms: in a space where many students are there simply because the course is required, building a community of learners is both hard and very, very important. Lauren noted one strategy for handling the “compulsory” hot potato: she invited students to reflect, in one late session during a recent course, on why they were there and on whether or not they ought to have been made to take the class. Such an approach is potentially dangerous – they might all gang up on you and tell you it’s rubbish! – but the most likely outcome is the one Lauren experienced: a mix of reactions, including some strong defences of the class, and some strong claims to the contrary. In such a debate, important opinions are shared, lessons learned, and, maybe, communities (or alliances?) born.

Matt helped us to remember that community can be, contrary to some expectations, a radical goal, as each of us belongs to many different communities, and it can be useful to reflect upon how we invest in those communities more, or less, at different moments and in different circumstances. No student is going to invest simply or singularly in their classroom community; rather, they are going to bring their experiences of their multiple, different allegiances to bear on their learning, and on their sharing with peers. That exposure to community experience can then, in the classroom, also be an important exposure to lived, human difference.

2. Risk.

The second and third prompts generated a number of reflections on the challenge of risk in the classroom. I’ve thought a lot about risk over the years – again, partly as a function of teaching drama, theatre, and performance, where students are required to take on a certain level of personal risk in just getting up on stage – but a panel on which I participated at the annual ATHE conference a few years ago helped me to remember that “risk” is a relative concept. It’s pretty easy for me to take risks, because I’ve been doing it my whole career; in fact, as an extroverted university teacher of drama I’ve made a career of taking certain kinds of risks (which makes them far less risky overall, right?). In the classroom, however, risk needs to be managed properly: the stakes can only be so high in order for students to be able to practice taking considered risks (and to practice not taking a risk too far).

Phil shared a terrific exercise: giving students the regular opportunity to assume potentially “risky” roles, like that of classroom leader. As he noted, when you give students the job of running the show, or picking the next topic for discussion and then explaining their choice, they take on responsibility for their peers’ learning; this is a risky role with manageable stakes, and it’s one that allows individual students to demonstrate their strengths and test their limits while also learning what it means to face potentially negative feedback from those (peers and teachers) whose opinions they care about. In turn, I shared some stories about moments in my classrooms when I’ve simply been honest with students about what I’m feeling: exhilarated, exhausted, or confused by what the class is or is not giving me, about what our dynamic seems to be that day (sample question: “guys, what the heck is going on?”). In those moments, I assume a level of risk: I expose myself as a human being to my students. It’s a manageable risk for me, as I’ve done it before, but it reminds students that I’m a member of our shared learning community, and that what we are or are not achieving impacts me affectively and thus personally, too.

3. “I don’t want to say I’m an activist teacher.”

I’m quite sad, in hindsight, that we were rushed in working on our last prompt, because it’s in many ways the most important one, and certainly it is the one I am most interested in right now. During our discussion of our second prompt (what does “activism” mean to me?) I talked about how I’m a bit worried that calling my classroom an “activist” one lets me off the hook. If I spend each class talking the activist talk, I can excuse myself more easily from walking the activist walk. I tend not to join picket lines. I don’t normally attend demonstrations. Unlike a number of my (brave) colleagues, I’ve never been arrested for taking a stand. Am I using “the activist classroom” as a get-out-of-jail-free card?

Matt had strong (and valuable) opinions in response to this question. He noted that one can be both an activist and a teacher, but for him these things are not, indeed cannot, be the same. How can one be an “activist” in the classroom without tacitly aligning oneself with the politics of one’s employer – an employer that might be, as my current employer, Queen Mary University of London, is right now, taking a decidedly conservative, even neoliberal stance on wages and workplace morale? We might use our classrooms to teach students to think like activists – Claudia called her pedagogical practice “activating the activists”, which I like a lot – but that should not be confused with our own practices of activism, practices which need to extend beyond the rarified worlds of university teaching (and university employment). Ann pointed out that the university (that is, the contemporary, generally risk-averse, generally for-profit learning institution) is only interested in supporting student activism up to a point (read here about the recent crackdown on student demonstration at University College London, to cite only one of a growing number of examples). How, then, under the umbrella of these institutions, can we teach students the genuine nitty-gritty of activist practice, including how to protect themselves from its sometimes extreme risks?

Although it was short, this last chunk of our discussion rattled me a bit. Ann, Matt, and the others were right: my classroom might offer regular opportunities to think and talk about the theory and practice of contemporary activism – social, political, artistic, economic, or otherwise – but my job as a teacher is to arm my students with a strong skill set, and that’s it. When I leave my classroom, that’s when my turn comes to put my existing skill set into practice by fighting for what I believe in: fair, living wages for all; a strong and independent arts community; accessible social housing; a government that listens to independent researchers and makes decisions based on the best evidence available in order to support the needs of the greatest number of its constituents. Teaching students about these problems, these urgencies, is part of my labour as a committed and politicised thinker, but it should not, cannot, be all there is to it.