On asking more questions

I’ve been trying a lot of new things in my two classes this semester. Last week I wrote about some changes I’ve made to the way I handle in-class performance work in my 20th century theatre course, which is primarily for English Lit students. This week, I’ve been thinking about just how many other changes I’ve been juggling these past two months. I’ve been trying new exercises in classes – including, for example, Lois Weaver’s terrific Long Table, which requires students to take complete responsibility for a discussion as well as responsibility for when to jump into and out of that discussion. (It’s harder than it sounds!) I’ve been bringing guests like Hattie Morahan and Tara Beagan in via Skype and asking students to build the questions we will ask them, thereby taking some ownership over the quality of the visit and the information it yields. In my smaller performance studies class (“Performance Beyond Theatres”) I’ve been requiring a lot of ad-hoc presentations and participation from students, partly in order to match the class’s more intimate seminar shape and feel, and partly in an effort to “lower the stakes” around anxiety-inducing things like speaking in class.

A couple of days ago, though, I was reminded by a student that sometimes the things that I think will be a breeze and a treat are neither; sometimes the things I suspect will lower the stakes only cause panic. I am, to state the never-quite-obvious-enough, not my students, and there’s a limit to what I can guess of how they are feeling. I’m better at this guesswork than I used to be, when every single thing that happened in classes or in office hours got filtered through my new-teacher impostor syndrome, in which I imagined that it was All My Fault For Sucking So Much. But even now, with a decade in the classroom behind me, I’m still a bit quick to imagine either that I’ve screwed up big time, or that I’m a Teaching Genius, depending on the mood of the day.

There’s not a lot of half way in the classroom; it’s a performance, after all, and performances are full of heightened affect. It’s exhilarating when you fall in love with how well things seem to be going, and taxing, very very taxing, when things seem to be going rather wrong. Sadly, it’s hard to feel the more obvious, likely more accurate thing: that stuff is mostly fine and could also be better, and that it’s mostly nothing to do with you, the teacher, at all.

This evening I sat down to read my latest Tomorrow’s Professor posting, which features a “throwback” book review by Roben Torosyan, director of the Office of Teaching & Learning at Bridgewater State University, about Stephen Brookfield’s landmark 1995 text, Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. As is often the case with TP postings, this one was exactly what I needed, at exactly the right time.

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Torosyan talks about his longtime debt to Brookfield’s book (hence the nearly 20-years-on review!), and particularly to Brookfield’s fondness for short, qualitative questionnaires that encourage both students and teachers to take regular stock of what’s going well, what’s not going so well, and what has been surprising, pleasurable, rewarding in the classroom.

This is what the book means by critical reflection, then: simply taking regular time to reflect calmly, sincerely, and without judgement on mundane classroom stuff.

Here’s Torosyan’s version of Brookfield’s “critical classroom incident” questionnaire for students:

1. At what moment in the class this week did you feel most engaged with what was happening?

2. At what moment in the class this week did you feel most distanced from what was happening?

3. What action that anyone (teacher or student) took in class this week did you find most affirming and helpful?

4. What action that anyone (teacher or student) took in class this week did you find most puzzling or confusing?

5. What about the class this week surprised you the most? (This could be something about your own reactions to what went on, or something that someone did, or anything else that occurs to you.) (p. 115)

And here’s the questionnaire Brookfield recommends as a weekly debriefing exercise for any teacher engaged in a new prep:

1. What moment (or moments) this week did I feel most connected, engaged or affirmed as a teacher–when I said to myself “This is what being a teacher is really all about”?

2. What moment (or moments) this week did I feel most disconnected, disengaged, or bored as a teacher–when I said to myself “I’m just going through the motions here”?

3. What was the situation that caused me the greatest anxiety or distress–…[one] I kept replaying in my mind as I was dropping off to sleep, or that caused me to say to myself “I don’t want to go through this again for a while”?

4. What was the event that most took me by surprise–where I saw or did something that shook me up, caught me off guard, knocked me off my stride, gave me a jolt, or made me unexpectedly happy?

5. Of everything I did this week in my teaching, what would I do differently if I had the chance to do it again?

6. What do I feel proudest of in my teaching activities this week? Why? (pp. 73-74)

There are, I think, two key things to note about both of these questionnaires.

First, respondents needn’t respond to everything. The idea is to write about what’s especially compelling in this class, this week – but to get it out, whatever it is, because whatever it is can only then become a teachable moment, a chance for learning something important about class dynamics or about the way students are receiving particular kinds of material or exercises or formal innovations. Students should be encouraged to talk about the good and the not so good, honestly. Teachers should be encouraged to do the same.

Second, these tools are designed to help teachers, in particular, to get past the urge toward extreme classroom affect. If you’re anything like me, you probably feel either pretty/really good, or pretty/really crappy after most classes, and it takes a lot of effort to detach from those feelings of profound investment and even responsibility for what I often imagine is a shared feeling of good/bad/awful. It’s really tempting to assume that students feel exactly the same way I do. But what if that’s not true? What if that excessive affect is actually completely personal and subjective, and more importantly not that useful in its raw form? Brookfield’s prompts for teachers are meant to help us objectify, as anecdotal evidence, what we might otherwise ingest too fully (and generalise too abstractly) as subjective feeling. His prompts for students are, likewise, designed to help teachers recognise broad patterns but also outliers in the classroom, so that we can learn from the former and learn not to over-invest in the latter.

I’d already decided, before reading Torosyan’s review, that Madison and I should poll our class about the effectiveness of our recent thesis-building workshop. I now thing I’m going to poll both of my classes at the half-way point to find out what kinds of “critical moments” in class – both good and bad – are shaping their experiences, and how we might improve the good and manage the bad better. I’m also going to do the teacher questionnaire next week, as our October Study Break hits, for both of my classes, and I’ll invite Madison to do one too. (Madison, you are hereby invited!)

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I’ll let you know how it goes.

Kim

Feminist swag!

I’ve just published a review of Peggy Shaw’s recent solo show, Ruff, in the latest issue of  Performance Research (“On Affirmation”). PR is a scholarly journal published by Taylor & Francis; as part of their open-access policies*, T&F allow me to share this piece for free with 50 people. Just as Gerry Harris has done on her and Elaine Aston’s Drama Queens Review, I’m very pleased to make that offer available to readers of the blog. Click here for your free copy.

Regular readers will recognise part of this review from my post on Ruff last Spring; click here to read that one. And in the spirit of collaborative teaching, researching, and performance activism, I’d like to thank Keren Zaointz, the reviews editor for the journal, for the opportunity to reflect on Peggy’s new work in print, as well as Peggy’s longtime collaborator (and my dear colleague) Lois Weaver for sharing thoughts with me last autumn on the process of making the show.

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(This is the promotional photo for “On Affirmation”. Oh yes.)

Enjoy – and feel free to pass the link along to others who might be keen!

Kim

*Open access is a complicated beast, too complicated for me to get into right here. But I’d like to note that, while I appreciate T&F’s opportunity to share my published work in their journals in this (limited) way, I do not, as an author, approve of the financial restrictions T&F place on my ability to reproduce my own work in other publications not solo-authored by me. The clause in my publishing contracts with T&F that stipulates my reprint rights and the potential costs of exercising some of those rights is to my mind both limiting and anti-collaborative, and I continue to insist it needs revision in order to be brought into line with the spirit of dynamic and interdisciplinary scholarship that open access is meant to support. I’ll do a full and less cryptic post on this issue in the near-ish future. For now, please download the review and enjoy, but don’t take this post as an endorsement of T&F’s policies on my part.

On “everyday feminism”

I’ve been a feminist for a very long time. I’ve self identified this way to students and in my research for my entire career so far. But when time came to name this blog, I hesitated about putting the word in the title. This wasn’t about being cagey; you can read about my feminist ethos on the “about” page, you can guess it from the title of my first solo-authored book (Violence Against Women in Early Modern Performance: Invisible Acts), and you can read my regular contributions to Fit is a Feminist Issue, which I always cross-post in this space. So my hesitation about labelling my blog “feminist” wasn’t about minimising or denying my feminist habitus. Rather, it was based in an anxiety about securing readership: I didn’t want the word to somehow limit the scope of the blog, for readers and, maybe, also for me. But what are the stakes of making such a choice? I’ve been thinking about this question a lot lately, largely because a confluence of recent, auspicious events has encouraged me to reflect anew on how I practice my feminism, and indeed about what contemporary feminist practice looks – or might look – like. (For more on “practice” used in this way, click here.)

The first of these auspicious events is a contract: I’ve just signed with Palgrave, my regular academic publisher, to write a book called Theatre& Feminism. Theatre& is a respected book series edited by my friends and colleagues Dan Rebellato and Jen Harvie; its volumes are short, accessible, and written with a student audience in mind. As I’ve begun preparing to write Theatre& Feminism, then, I’ve been reading as much as I can about what the term “feminism” might look and sound like to such an audience: I’ve been investigating blogs of all kinds, listening to interviews with women in the mainstream who call themselves (or not!) feminists, and reading books such as the superb Everyday Sexism by Laura Bates. (I really like and respect this book; I’ll do a full review of it on the blog when I’m finished with it. Meanwhile, visit the Everyday Sexism project here.)

Exploring feminism via the contemporary mainstream has been enormously eye-opening for me as an academic feminist; I’ve realized that as much as Western, Anglophone culture is still anxious about the term and its polemical, bra-burning connotations, we also seem to be undergoing a kind of feminist resurgence right now, especially among young, politically aware men and women. This is heartening and inspiring for me, but it’s also, I’m cautious to note, not a simple given. (Phew! It’s 2014 and we finally all “get” feminism. Um, sadly, no.) As I’ve learned from my students when I bring up this topic, not all the women (or men!) who engage with stuff like Everyday Sexism are interested in calling themselves feminists: there’s still something uncomfortably sticky about the word, and about what it might say about you if you were openly to wear the label.

I’d just got stuck into Everyday Sexism when I was invited to appear on a public roundtable a couple of weeks ago as part of Queen Mary’s “Peopling the Palaces” festival. Curated by Lois Weaver, the roundtable was intended to explore the place of feminism alongside Live Art today; somehow, though, in the moment it turned into a debate about what the term “feminism” means now. This wasn’t unexpected or even unusual; as Lois noted to the audience, whenever she has hosted events like this in the past – and she’s been hosting them a good long while! – audience members and contributors alike always seem to circle back onto the problem of language. And then we, too, get stuck.

Luckily, however, on this occasion we managed to get unstuck – thanks largely to my colleague Caoimhe McAvinchey. Prompted by my description of what it was like for me, as a feminist scholar, to read Bates’ common-sense book, Caoimhe suggested that what we perhaps need most of all, feminist scholars and “mainstream” feminists alike, is a project that chronicles gestures of “everyday feminism”: the things we do, both men and women, each day that constitute the promotion of sex and gender equality, both in public and in private.

Caoimhe’s words were a revelation to me. Feminism as a practice of everyday life! Why had I not considered this before? Provoked to think about feminism in this way – as a kind of doing that does not always need a fixed label, but that should nevertheless demand attention be paid – I started seeing “everyday” feminism everywhere. Including in event number three: my reading of a terrific new article by the performance scholar and blogger Jessica Pabón about the feminist labour of female graffiti crews in Brazil and Chile. Pabon’s field research turned up a group of intelligent and talented young women who are working, right now, in a non-traditional field, supporting one another in that work, collaborating on its making, and even helping one another to raise their children “at the wall”, in the tradition of the graffitera – yet staunchly refusing to call themselves feminists. Why? For these women, Pabón explains, feminism has connotations of public activism in which they do not see themselves engaging. It reads to them as ideological and as polemical, and as such it registers as outside the reality they choose to inhabit as working female artists.

So far so ignorant! – or so an academic feminist (myself included) might say. But Pabón helpfully follows another line: what if, she asks, we took these women seriously as working feminists, feminists in their actions, in their doing rather than in their labelling? She writes:

We have lost sight because the power of the word — claiming and naming a self and an act as feminist — trumps the invisible, individual feminist acts happening everyday by a generation of women raised by, or at least privy to, feminist ideals. Instead of seeing the various modes of feminism being performed differently as a hindrance, and instead of seeing the failure of feminism to attract a unilateral following, with the example set by [these graffiteras] we can reinvest these terms with the dynamism of movement. (114)

The notion of feminism not simply as “a movement”, but as movement, strikes me, if not perhaps as revolutionary (Pabón builds here on the ideas of the remarkable Latina feminist and human rights activist Gloria Anzaldua), then as undeniably useful for working through what and how feminism means right now to exactly the kinds of ordinary men and women attracted to things like the Everyday Sexism project and the remarkable example of activists such as Malala Yousafzai. How does doing feminism, rather than “being feminists,” work for this group of people? And how might we recognise and build on that?

Of course, ultimately, language does matter: being able to identity as a feminist and not automatically call to mind unhelpful, stereotypical images of breast-beating barricade-huggers or hairy women’s studies lecturers is a big part of what it means to bring feminism into the mainstream. But maybe that’s not step one; maybe it’s step two. First, I think we need to ask: how do we take the lessons of “everyday feminism” as practiced by, for example, Pabón’s artist subjects and use those lessons to turn the language of feminism into “everyday” discourse?

Enter my final event. Yesterday at the gym I listened to a recent interview with the Canadian actress Mackenzie Davis on the cultural affairs show Q, hosted by Jian Ghomeshi. Davis is the star of the new AMC series Halt and Catch Fire; she is also a graduate of the English and Women’s Studies programs at McGill University in Montreal. And she’s a feminist: out and proud. Recently, Lena Dunham – another out and proud feminist and successful TV actor, writer and producer – shouted out to Davis for her willingness to voice her politics in public (something Dunham also does, and does brilliantly). Unsurprisingly, Ghomeshi picked up on this call-out and queried Davis on what it meant to her to be praised, publicly, for calling herself a feminist. Davis had this to say:

…culturally there’s this weird thing where we vilify the word, and people need to step around it, so I think the best thing is just for us to talk about it and be like ‘oh no, it’s just about human rights! It’s just about civil rights!’ …[Feminism] is a wonderful thing and I studied it, so I … have the luxury of having a more nuanced understanding of it and not just this cultural idea of it being a bad word that we need to stay away from. But I’d like to make it so that you don’t have to be in gender studies, or study it, in order to know that feminism isn’t a bad word.

I was struck not just by the thoughtfulness, honesty, and forthrightness of Davis’ remarks here, but also by her clear-eyed comment on the relationship between “academic” and “mainstream” attitudes toward feminism. She’s lucky, she notes, to have the “luxury” to think about feminism outside of the fear the term sometimes (often) inspires; as a public figure with this privilege, she feels responsible for disseminating how basic, at its core, feminism really is: it’s just about human rights, it’s just about civil rights. It’s not an ideology or a polemic: if we’d just listen carefully, we’d hear that it’s about fairness and equality and treating one another with the spirit of fairness and equality in mind, always.

And so I return to Caoimhe’s “everyday feminism.” What might be an everyday feminist action? It need not itself be ground-swelling; everyday feminist doings may be profoundly small, and even unique to you or me. The point is that they embody the spirit of feminist practice – even, and perhaps especially, if we’ve never considered such things in such a light before. That kind, respectful way you spoke to that strange-looking young man or woman just now? The response you offered to that not especially progressive statement about how you look, or who you’re with? Your refusal to put up with something that might fall into the category of “everyday sexism”? Or your support for that person (man or woman) who might be experiencing a moment of everyday sexism themselves? Yup, all of those things.

Caoimhe and I, along with our terrific feminist peers at QM, are working on ways to turn a collection of everyday feminist gestures into some kind of broader feminist action; meanwhile, I want to encourage you to share yours – with your students, teachers, friends, peers, partners, with a younger person (or older person!) you know, or here in the comments section. I’ll start; here’s mine.

My mom is really ill right now, and my father, who was a “traditional” dad his entire life, has become her full time caregiver. He is struggling with the weight of this work – not because he’s a man, but because it’s just really, incredibly hard work. Knowing as I do that this kind of caregiving labour has historically been “woman’s work”, and thus that my dad probably doesn’t know how to do all of the parts of it, I’ve been trying to support him, and especially to encourage him to get more rest, take good care of himself, and share his hurt and anger with me and others who can help. As an academic feminist I know it’s very hard for some men to admit when they need help – because men of my dad’s generation in Europe were socialised to regard themselves as strong and self-sufficient, the bearers and not the feelers of pain – so I’ve been encouraging him to get as much help as he needs, and I’ve been doing what I can to assist with that.

You might say I’m just being a good daughter. Nope: I’m being a good daughter and a good feminist.

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(Me and dad, Napa Valley, 2010)

Pass it on,

Kim

 

On academic work and mental health (for professors and students alike)

It’s May! Back in Canada, my colleagues are throwing off the shackles of two chilly winter terms, getting out the shorts and sandals, and finishing the year’s marking and meetings en route to four months of welcome research labour. Here in the UK it’s exam term; we’ve had a lovely Easter break over April, and now must complete our own marking, meeting, and finalizing before taking off for the summer. In short, we’ve hit a cherished time of year.

Normally this is when I start to breathe a bit more easily, feel a bit stronger and lighter; the weather lifts, the intensity of the work tapers off, and time can be made in the day for taking things slowly (…and going to the gym, or out for a ride on my beloved road bike*). And so I have. But this spring is also filled with challenges for me: my family is struggling through a time of illness, and soon I’ll be packing up a portion of my house and heading back to Canada. My husband, dog and I will be living a trans-Atlantic life for a while, and I’m fretful and anxious about the emotional challenges ahead.

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*Photo of me and bike, feeling not sad at all.

I’ve pretty much always been an anxious person, though – and my anxiety pushes beyond the bounds of normal levels. I’ve been treated for it, and for other mental health difficulties, for well over a decade; I owe a great deal of my current wellbeing to the work I have done since 2001 with my superb psychotherapist, Andrew, who is based in Toronto. I also take medication to help me cope with anxiety and its fallout (which manifests for me as a sometimes-debilitating hypochondria). My anxiety has at times made it difficult for me to work, and sometimes I need to make allowances because I’m just not feeling quite OK. I’m not very good at this part, but I’m getting better.

I’ve been prompted to share this personal information by a spate of recent chatter on the Guardian Higher Education network: a recent article and a recent blog post generated lots of commentary and spurred the Guardian to conduct a survey on academic labour and mental health. I took it, and I was surprised to find that much of the stress and anxiety I feel is not directly attributable to my job; I suspect this is partly because of the history of mental health difficulties I’ve had over the course of my lifetime. I often wonder if I didn’t seek out my career in university teaching and learning because of a perverse attachment to the stresses of being a student; knowing that anxiety is part of what drives me (as my mother once memorably said to me, about herself), I suspect I sought out the worries I knew, rather than opting for unfamiliar psychic burdens. Anyway, obviously my job is full of stresses, but I don’t consider that abnormal in any particular way. Which means two things, I think: first, that I’m pretty self-aware, and manage my anxieties fairly effectively (I’ve had lots of help and training, fortunately); and second – and this is the argument that the above-linked blog post very succinctly and helpfully makes about academics in general – that I’m perhaps too cavalier about the psycho-physical toll university life has on me, my students, and my colleagues. And that’s a serious problem.

Anecdotally, many of my fellow uni teachers report a sharp, recent increase in the number of students who come to us during office hours or advising meetings with serious mental health challenges. Just this past year I’ve encountered a student who was finding it hard to get out of bed in the morning, a student whose roommate was presenting with clinical OCD, a student from outside the UK struggling with loneliness and feelings of depression, a student diagnosed with a learning disability who was initially unable to cope with the diagnosis, and handfuls of other students not sure how to deal with what we might call the mundane stresses of academic life. I have no idea if this marks a true “increase” in student mental health problems in the UK or elsewhere – if anyone has statistics to hand on this, please post them in the comments section below – or if this is a matter of more students willing to report on their challenges to advisors; I do sense, though, that for the students who come to see me, speaking about these issues remains extremely taboo. It still takes a great deal of effort to work up the courage to knock on the door, or to email for an appointment. I’m open with students about my own mental health struggles, which may be one reason they feel they can take a chance and come talk to me, but that doesn’t make it any easier in the moment, for either of us.

Ever since I read the material on the Guardian network I’ve been thinking about how we can better support one another – colleagues and students – in maintaining our mental health and wellbeing, and I think this challenge applies equally to university and grammar school settings, although I fully admit to knowing nothing about mental health provisions for the latter in the UK or in North America today. (I remember having two psychological breaks as a student, one in year 4 and one in year 8, but I got almost no support from teachers and felt profoundly ashamed of myself as part of the experience. Then again, that was almost 30 years ago now; I hope and pray times have changed.) One thing we can, and should, do – as I’ve argued in this space a couple of times before, complete with holiday snaps! – is to remind students and peers alike that working all the time is not a good idea, will not make your output better, and will not contribute to a long and successful career; every body needs rest in order to assimilate learning, nourish itself, and grow. (I don’t care if you work in a lab, in a library, or in front of a computer most of the time – we are not ourselves machines.) But surely we can also do more.

One of the strengths of my current academic home in the Drama Department at Queen Mary University of London is the openness with which we talk about mental health issues; in fact, we maintain an academic focus on the links between performing arts and emotional wellbeing through the work of scholar/practitioners Caoimhe McAvinchey, Ali Campbell, Lois Weaver, and others, as well as through our affiliation with visual artist, performance maker, and lay medical expert Dr Bobby Baker. Next year, we’ll also be inaugurating a Master of Science pathway in Creative Arts and Mental Health, shared with QM’s Wolfson Institute for Preventive Medicine. We’re really good, in other words, at talking openly and without judgement about the kinds of wobblies that our society still, in 2014, rarely lets us admit to. Which makes us darn lucky, and sadly rare.

What have I learned from QM Drama’s focus on performance and wellbeing that might offer us a model for talking about and engaging with mental health challenges in our classrooms and staff rooms elsewhere? Here are three tips, off the top.

  • Talk about mental health and wellbeing in the classroom. More than once. And early on. Perhaps put something about it – and about the resources available to students – on the syllabus/module outline, along with some friendly, supportive language about how all of us need such help from time to time. Then make time to talk about it regularly; check in with students about how they are feeling throughout the term. As part of this process, take a risk and be honest with students: are you feeling a bit crap yourself? Why not share that information? Sure, of course, we need to retain some professional distance: a classroom is not group therapy, and many of us are not qualified psychologists. But that doesn’t mean that we cannot be honest, as human beings, about how things are going and how we’re feeling. In my experience, when students clock that their teachers are imperfect human beings too they feel instantly more at ease. They feel better.
  • Share coping strategies with students, both in the classroom and in office hours. I am very willing to tell my students that I struggle with clinical anxiety and that I take medication to help me manage that condition; I am also very willing to share my experiences of talk therapy with them. Some of you (and some of them), I know, will think this is over-sharing, but I consider it a normalizing gesture – making what might seem shameful sound actually pretty OK. I have these conditions but I’m doing fine and feeling well; you can also feel better and do well. There are a lot of services on a modern university campus designed to help students manage mental health problems, and of course it’s essential that we direct students in need to those services; sometimes, though, before sending a student away to be pathologized by a campus counselor, it can help for us to let that student know that we are all, in many ways, in this together.
  • Make some noise in your department, school or centre about mental health issues for students and staff. At QM Drama talking about mental and emotional wellness is part of what we do, both professionally and as colleagues and friends; I know full well that this is not the case in every department. (A dear friend and colleague in Canada once admitted to me that he takes medication for depression, and that by his estimate half of our department may have done; I had no idea, but when he said that to me, strict truth or not, a weight lifted.) Perhaps each department on every university campus should have a strategy – maybe ad hoc or informal, if not necessarily fixed on paper – for supporting its staff and students in times of emotional need. This strategy might be as simple as all staff being encouraged to talk about mental wellness issues whenever necessary, with students or peers; it might extend to encouragement to check in with students in the classroom, when teachers feel comfortable or able to do, so that such check-ins are considered normal and not strange for students going through the department’s courses. Or, maybe it’s as simple as fostering an atmosphere of openness and non-shamefulness in relation to mental health issues, so that everyone feels like, if they need to speak up for their own good, they can do that safely in the office or the photocopy room.

As I’ve been writing this post I’ve been wondering to myself if I’m stating the obvious; surely we all know by now that struggling with anxiety, depression, or even compulsive behaviours is not abnormal. But I have a feeling I’m not, and that we really don’t; stigmas remain, and they are tenacious. Big Pharma and its many colourful pills may be ubiquitous, but the rise of medicating mental difficulty has not necessarily opened our eyes, hearts, ears or mouths to the complex and debilitating realities of coping with it. Surely one of our jobs, as teachers and teaching colleagues, is to break such remaining barriers down – or at least to make life and work more manageable for those trapped behind them.

Be well,

Kim

What Tammy Taught Us About Starting a Real Conversation

My friend and colleague Lois Weaver, aka Tammy Whynot, also of Split Britches fame, came to hang out with my students in Theatre and Performance in North America this morning. As Lois the artist, she’ll be visiting us in two weeks’ time via Skype (she lives in New York at this time of year) and the students will be responsible for interviewing her and Peggy Shaw, her longtime collaborator. Today, though, she came in person to class as Lois the scholar and teacher, to talk with us about the kinds of questions that make for a good, productive interview with a working artist.

Theatre and Performance in North America is shaped around a series of interviews with working artists: we read their stuff, research their practice and politics, then host them on Skype. The goal is to help the students on the course to understand contemporary performance practice in Canada, the U.S., and Mexico as no less alive, vibrant, and immediate than the amazing work they see around them in London; the value-added bit is to help them develop some preliminary arts journalism skills (as well as better skills for doing unconventional/non-library-based research). It sounds amazing, but it’s a huge challenge for me as instructor, because most students aren’t that good at asking questions, or at least at asking actually useful questions. Even though the contemporary Anglo-American academy places a huge emphasis on asking questions and thinking critically in the classroom, it’s rare that we take the time to parse the difference with our students between a weak question and a strong one, or to explore the similarities and differences between a good research question for your essay, and a useful question for starting a research-driven conversation with another human being.

I understand these nuances for myself now, thanks to years of on-the-ground practice (and plenty of research question epic fails), but I still find it mighty hard to convey them meaningfully to students. Enter Lois, to the rescue! In addition to some excellent, generous, utterly practical critiques of students’ practice questions, she also gave them today five “top tips” as they prepare to host their first Skype interview. As I reflected on these after class, I realised that Lois’s advice was speaking to me as a teacher in a much broader way than the scope of her lesson originally intended: in fact, I’ll go so far as to say her tips describe, for me, best practice for teaching preparation and classroom organisation, and I intend to hang onto them. See what you think; I think I might give them to my students, along with the syllabus, at the start of next semester’s courses, in the hope that as we get to know one another we can work on building better strategies for talking to and with one another in the classroom.

  1. Do your research. You can’t have a proper conversation with someone, about a shared topic, if you haven’t done your homework. Simple as that. This applies equally well, I think, to interviewers, students, and teachers!
  2. Bring your research with you, but leave your assumptions at home. If you’ve studied your subject closely in advance of a gig, you might have formed a variety of opinions and expectations about who that person is and what he/she will want to talk about. Check those now! Chances are you’ve created a fantasy image of your subject; that fantasy risks getting in the way of you truly meeting your subject when you do talk to him/her. Again, this is so true in the classroom: as a teacher I’m always making the (unconscious) mistake of imagining that my students will have read, understood, and gotten from the week’s reading exactly what I’ve taken away. That is almost NEVER the case. And, the more I’ve prepped for the fantasy version of the class in my head, the harder it is to adapt to the reality when it hits me in the face.
  3. Talk to the person you’re interviewing. This is my favourite tip. When we’ve prepped to do a job like host an interview or teach a lesson, it’s easy to get caught up in the list of questions or tasks we’ve brought with us. But that list is just the starting point; it’s not supposed to be the point. The point – of both a good interview and a good lesson – is to start a conversation and see where it leads us. There’s no real value in ticking the boxes/ticking off the questions; better to ask just one good, perhaps very simple question, use that question as a prompt to start a conversation, and give in to the pleasures of uncertainty (at least, for a bit).
  4. Think of yourself as one part of a research team. Lois argues that, at its best, a good prompt from a thoughtful, engaged interviewer will lead her to explore fresh aspects of her own artistic practice she might not otherwise have considered. In other words, the interview becomes a research exercise for both interviewer and artist, and together they discover things that neither alone might have found. This exactly describes my ideal classroom, in which we’re all part of a learning laboratory (or studio, to use a fine arts metaphor) with one of us acting as an experienced guide. Of course in practice it’s messier and more complicated than that, but the simple act of imagining we’re a research team, working together to make brand-new discoveries, is a good place to start. (For me, too.)
  5. Listen. Really listen. Especially for key words, phrases, ideas that emerge as important while the interview subject is speaking. Then, don’t be afraid to pull on those threads, even to leave your prepared questions behind for a while – or perhaps for good. Leaving the prep behind is terrifying, no doubt, but sometimes it’s the risk that opens the portal to the conversation/the interview/the lesson you really need to have. (Seasoned interviewers do this extremely well, and offer excellent object lessons for teachers; for a virtuoso example, check out Jian Ghomeshi’s recent interview with Janeane Garofalo on CBC’s Q.) I’ve only abandoned my prep a handful of times in my teaching career, but each time it’s been absolutely worth it. On the flip side, those days when I stick too closely to the prep, not really hearing the covert rumblings that suggest something else is needed, usually turn out poorly, with the room’s energy quickly fizzling away. I’ve discovered over time that I don’t prep primarily in order to deliver that prepared material; I prep as a way to build my confidence in the material, and thus to encourage myself to be able to step away if and when necessary.

As class was ending, I mentioned that Lois’s advice seems to boil down to two parallel (and slightly paradoxical) suggestions: do your damned homework, but don’t be afraid to walk away from your script. In this sense, she asks that those of us who interview artists, and those of us who teach the next generation of artists (and scholars, and journalists, and…), be willing to do the kind of work, and to take the leaps of faith, that artists do every day. Sage advice from a lady who knows a thing or two, believe me.

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Thanks Lois!

Kim