Finding precious time!

Back in December I did some traveling. First, I visited Konstanz, the beautiful university town on the Bodensee in southern Germany, to host a workshop on arts pedagogy in the neoliberal public sphere. Then, it was off to the University of Sussex, and later to the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, to hold two related events about the way forward for theatre and performance teachers, students, scholars, and artists inside the neoliberal academy (aka, the university that wants to train you for a job, probably in the sciences or business, and kill everything else that might be alive inside you. More or less).

These events were all related to the new research project I’ve just begun, in which I ask questions about how we are already, and better can in future, recognize and re-situate the transdisciplinary value of performance as a “mobile critical paradigm” in universities around the world that are currently hell-bent on destroying as much arts programming as possible. (Note: “mobile critical paradigm” is a term that comes from the brilliant book In Defence of Theatre, edited by my friends and colleagues Barry Freeman and Kathleen Gallagher. Thanks for this amazing inspiration, both of you!)

I had a wonderful time hosting these discussions, but they shared a quality that was not wonderful at all: bone-weary fatigue. My lovely, inspiring, resilient friends and colleagues and their students and junior colleagues are struggling so, so very hard to keep their heads above water even as everything they believe in is painfully devalued and possibly destroyed. Yet we remain hopeful, and we remain convinced (as we should be – we are resilient!) that we can turn this ship around and make space for broad and nuanced and critical and compelling arts and humanities discourse once again, soon.

If only we had more time. Time to think. Time to breathe.

(Thanks to the extraordinary Rebecca Hayes Laughton for her extraordinary work on the Central event. That’s her on the right. Above left, Kat Low and Rachel Hann express the pleasures of going off-brand.)

Fast forward to the end of 2017. I was late sending out my thank-you email to all of the wonderful allies who attended the two-day event at Central. In my message, among other things, I invited attendees to contribute guest posts to the blog in order to reflect on the many difficult and painful and critical and hopeful ideas we had circulated and argued over and cherished and fretted about.

Without much prompting, Gary Anderson and Lena Simic of the Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home said they’d gladly take up this thrown-down gauntlet. I’m proud to publish their reflections here.

These reflections are about the most precarious of our institutional precarities: the struggle to find the time. To think, to reflect, to plot, to collaborate fulsomely, to dissent, to take action. Not that we are not doing these things; Gary and Lena most certainly are, along with their amazing four boys. But, as you’ll read below, it’s far harder than it should be – than it should be for any and all of us, if we are to retain the energy, the drive, the nourishment and the scope to generate from this moment of crisis real and lasting change.

What to do? Gary and Lena have ideas but no firm answers. They have also asked me to contribute some words to the project of thinking about this conundrum of time for an upcoming book of theirs, and I’ll share my reflections in response to that kind invitation in my next post.

But first, let’s hear from them. To create the pieces below, Lena and Gary followed my suggestions in a post on the blog in 2016 about low-stakes writing and what it can teach us; they each wrote for 30 minutes, observing on paper what came.

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Lena 

It was September 2014 and I was on my maternity leave with baby James. I was in Dubrovnik visiting my parents for a couple of weeks. We fell into a routine. After lunch, James would splash about in his little green boat and I would go, on my own, to the beach. I was lucky enough to have James looked after by my parents. I was alone. I’d go to Banje, Dubrovnik’s central beach, somewhat too crowded for my liking, but it was September, the light was gorgeous, really sharp, and I was alone. I had my book with me, Tender is the Night by Scott Fitzgerald. It was one of those books that I was reading very slowly in order to live in it and with it for longer. Deleuze spoke about the water-ski episode in the book as ‘ten pages of total beauty of not knowing how to age’. I was keen to learn about the disgrace and the shame of ageing, of trying to stay young, appearing fit. I was 39. My 40th birthday was in November that year. On the beach, I swam (3 times to the red buoy and back) and I read the book. Suddenly, I realized. I am not alone. I am with Dick and Nicole Diver. All my time is managed. I am swimming furiously, making the best out of my time. What if I just lay on the beach? I couldn’t do it. It was too crowded and too hot, a total waste of time.

In preparation for my 40th birthday performance 40 Minutes I used to go to the Institute every day for 40 days before my birthday, for 40 minutes and fill out a page of a 40-page notebook. I was creating 40 notebooks for my 40 invited friends. The time of 40 minutes was my methodology of creating/stealing time, being alone in the Institute and thinking/writing/performance making. I only worked on this performance in that given time – 40 minutes for 40 days, my 40th being the actual performance.

The Institute combines life and art, as well as life and work. Everything’s a project. This is exhausting. Last year, I wanted to quit the Institute. I wondered what it would be like not to frame our family life through it. It is true that the children are less involved these days, but they have grown up with the Institute, with a very particular activist family life. At our 2017 AGM Sid (10) said: ‘I don’t want it to end-end, I just don’t want to participate in everything.’ His other wish was to do a presentation again – he enjoyed being a part of Playing Up symposium with our presentation ‘Being and Things’ at Tate Modern in 2015.

The other day I got an email from a colleague who said that she can only, at the moment, perform her ‘basic contractual work obligations’. I found such liberation in that phrasing. It’s ‘work to rule’ – Gary said, reminding me about union disputes. Everyone knows we academics work so much more than our contracts stipulate. I am multitasking and channelling my energies into different work spheres: research, performance making, producing, teaching, mothering. Am I doing any of the activities well enough? And yet, all is so over-combined in my life.

One of my best friends from Zagreb works as a civil servant, with the Ministry of Finance. I am not actually sure what her job is. She studied law. She never talks about her work. It’s a waste of our time together. For her, work is elsewhere, compartmentalized into a different world. I envy her. In my world, all is too combined, too much fusion. Yes, I’m so good at not checking work emails after 5pm and never ever at weekends, but I have three more email addresses, WhatsApp, Viber, Instagram and a Facebook account. I think about my children and their future jobs. I am not sure my career is the one I’d advise anyone to follow.

I was inspired by Kim’s post ‘Write. Just write. And be amazed.’ I was reminded of my own methodologies of working with students on their essays and research papers, and myself in performance making. I remembered that my favourite writing is always in relation, when I write with/to my research collaborator Emily Underwood-Lee about maternal matters, when I write letters to my friend and colleague Zoë Svendsen. I was reminded of Virginia Woolf’s quote in A Room of One’s Own: ‘the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think’. I am yet to achieve either. The habit of freedom might be an ability to let go and be truly alone and unproductive. The courage to write exactly what I think is going to take a while, at least a little longer than 30 minutes.

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(Here’s Gary, talking us through, among other things, how to appreciate the otherness of the accidental cockroach, during the event I hosted at CSSD in December 2017. Most fun in a hotel room ever. Really.)

Gary 

Lena’s already started. Half an hour of writing in response to Kim Solga’s blogging. Lena’s furiously tapping away on her keys and I’m stuck writing about her getting ahead of me.

10 per cent. I have a problem with the way we are always compartmentalising stuff – like time, and schedules and how to divide up a day – because in the end I naively believe in a Spinozist universe of infinite substance. I want integration. I don’t want separation. Lena, correctly, tells me that this world view suits somebody who is actually quite lazy. It means I don’t really have to prepare for anything, structure stuff or plan. I can bump into things and try to transform them. Lena suggests this is my modus operandi. I don’t know if that’s fair but I do like the sound that bumping into stuff makes.

However, we’ve decided to divide our time into two portions: a 90 per cent and a 10 per cent. The 90 per cent is where our contractual obligations are fulfilled (our jobs at university) and the 10 per cent is where all the Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home work for 2018 gets done. We made this arrangement under some duress whilst we argued and argued about who is the lazy one and who is the one who maintains everything – at our 2017 AGM in Dubrovnik – at the Biker’s Café.

There’s a history of decimation in world religions; the churches of the late middle ages thought it wise to decimate all parishioners to the tune of 10 per cent of their wealth. The churches grew astonishingly rich from this levy whilst the consequences for dissenting parishioners were severe. Penalties were dished out exemplar-fashion. Retrospectively, we’ve applied the word decimate to mean the killing of every tenth Roman solider who dissented.  Whether in Rome or elsewhere everyone soon got to know what being decimated meant. From the perspective of hegemony – you were ‘saved’. We have a similar methodology at home. All monies that come through us, from lecturer salaries to child benefits for our four children to any invited commissions, are decimated and put into the Institute. It’s a way of saving ourselves from the full onslaught of the current equivalent of the Roman Empire or the oligarchy of the late Middle age Christian church. We need saving from our late capitalist living all more or less 100 per cent covered by legal contracts and insipid insurance structures.

We’ve decided to extend the metaphor into our time. We are contracted to operate as full time employees of higher education establishments in/around Liverpool. That’s 35 hours per week. On Tuesday mornings we spend 3.5 hours on the work of the Institute. This short writing exercise, in response to Kim Solga’s blogging, is part of that 3.5 hours. We said we’d get everything done by then, between 9am and 12:30pm. The kids are all in school. We are at the kitchen table trying out a writing exercise ‘Write. Just write. And be amazed’, from The Activist Classroom blog. I’ve about 10 minutes left…

This is part of a book project we have decided to work on called ‘10’. A book of 10 ‘chapters’ each talking and writing through a key problem. We might call the book ‘10 Problems’. We don’t know yet. We need to decide everything within the 10 per cent of our 35 hours on a Tuesday morning: get the concepts of the book clear, do all the writing and thinking together and make sure everything is in place until publication and dissemination. It’s fun to work in this way sometimes. Feels like a joke at our employers’ expense, one they wouldn’t even be interested in, would just ignore or brush off as incomprehensible or ‘it’s what drama teachers do…’ That gives me a little bit of energy and focus.

This will go through a re-reading now, after the half hour is up, then will be shared with Lena, then we’ll try to pick out the best bits, then we’ll write a proposal for Kim’s blog based on what we’ve learnt or produced from this writing exercise. We started off with the idea that all of us, and all of our strategies and tactics for working, are simply over-productive; that we are struggling with a paradox: we need time in order to slow down, but that time would have to be scheduled into what is already no time left, again.

Time up.

***

Want to know more?

The Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home, based in a family home in Liverpool, UK, founded in 2007 is an intervention into family life and the normative upbringing of children. The Institute identify as anarchist, anti-capitalist and feminist. Our interventions happen across various levels: through activities in our own home by way of performances, artists’ residencies, meetings, reading groups and through our participation as a family of performers at different art events, protests, festivals and academic conferences. The Institute’s activities involve taking the children to political demonstrations and learning together how to be critical citizens rather than passive consumers. The Institute is funded by 10% of the family’s net income (two university lecturer salaries, child benefit and any other artist commissions), and currently stands at around £530 per month. The Institute are Gary Anderson (45), Lena Simic (43), Neal (17), Gabriel (15), Sid (10) and James (4).

The Institute publications include art activist books 4 Boys [for Beuys] (2016), The Mums and Babies Ensemble (2015), and Five (2008-2012) (2014). The Institute have presented their work in various arts centre (Tate Modern, Arnolfini, Artsadmin, Live Art Development Agency, the Bluecoat, FACT, Tobacco Factory, New Art Gallery Walsall, Chelsea Theatre, Stanley Picker Gallery, East Street Arts, Wysing Arts Centre, 25 SG), academic and arts journals (Contemporary Theatre Review, Performance Research, RiDE, Feminist Review, Meta Mute, The Concept Store Journal, Liverpool Art Journal) as well as numerous national and international conferences.

The Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home are currently collaborating with Live Art Development Agency on Study Room in Exile, co-organizing Family Activist Network and co-editing (with Adele Senior) a special issue ‘On Children’ for Performance Research.

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Theatre and performance vs the “crisis” in the Humanities (warning: this post requires you to think about doing something!)

Friends, I am excited to share with you a call for papers I’ve created for the fantastic, UK-based journal Research in Drama Education.

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The issue I’m guest-editing will appear in August 2019; its purpose is to gather exciting, stimulating, but above all useful best practices from around the world that demonstrate how theatre and performance makers, scholars, teachers, and community partners are helping to rewrite what has become our “common sense” refrain: …that Humanities schools, faculties, and programs at our colleges and universities are being marginalized by business- and STEM-forward administrators and government pressures, and that there is nothing we can do about it but grouse and cry while the ship sinks.

I know this “common sense” state of affairs is not really the case – that it is, rather, another situation where we have all swallowed a load of depressing Kool-Aid, largely out of sheer bone-weariness. (Fighting endless battles simply to demonstrate one’s relevance has a tendency to make one rather tired, and longing for a drink.)

How do I know this? Because I also know too many people (friends and colleagues alike; friends of friends and colleagues of colleagues) who are busy doing something, right now, about it. And even sometimes succeeding.

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What this issue wants to know is exactly what that doing-something-about-it looks like. It wants to hear from those of us in higher education’s theatre and performance (and dance and music…) trenches, but it also wants to hear – very much wants to hear – from administrators who have insights to share.

Above all, it argues that theatre and performance programs have an obligation to be at the heart of the 21st century, “neoliberal” university, not at its periphery – and it wants to know how to make that claim a “common sense” reality.

There are a lot of ways to contribute to this issue – I’m inviting scholarly articles, shorter case study articles, as well as creative expressions, dialogues, and a variety of things that might be web-only friendly. We are fortunate that RiDE has the capacity to make this issue a cross-platform publication, and that its audience is helpfully international and very diverse.

Below, I’m reproducing the issue’s core research questions, as well as information about how to submit a proposal (due 1 October 2017).

I’m also including a link to the full CFP, on RiDE‘s website, here.

I know many of you will have seen this come across your desks already – if you could take a moment now to forward this on to anyone you’ve thought perhaps might like to see it, but hasn’t yet seen it, I’d be grateful!

Sometime between now and October I’ll do another post on the issue’s topic, which will feature some personal stories about how I ended up getting the RiDE gig and coming up with this particular idea. I’ll also think ahead there a bit there to an event I’m planning in London, UK, in November, with connections to the issue.

Until then, questions most welcome!

Solidarity,

Kim

Theatre + Performance vs “The Crisis in the Humanities”: Creative Pedagogies, Neoliberal Realities*

*Call for papers in full available here: crde-cfp-crisis-in-humanities-2q2017

Research questions

  • What initiatives are already underway to ready schools and departments of theatre and performance for survival within the neoliberal university?
  • How are these initiatives received by stakeholders (students, teachers, artists, administrators, community partners) both inside and outside of institutional contexts?
  • How essential is interdisciplinary collaboration to the survival of theatre and performance labour in the neoliberal university? What models exist for such (successful) collaboration?
  • How essential is community collaboration to the survival of theatre and performance labour in the neoliberal university? What models exist for such (successful) collaboration?
  • Within the initiatives and collaborations thus detailed, what room exists for creative, performance-driven critique of neoliberal structures? How is that room made? When and how does making such space fall short of goals?

Logistical Details

The issue will blend scholarly articles of approximately 6000 words with evidentiary documents of 1500-2000 words (brief case studies; module/course outlines; measurements gathered on behalf of initiatives; etc) and online materials. The latter may include recorded interviews, classroom or other performance clips, or creative data dissemination. The issue aims for a rich mix of scholarly discussion about the issues at hand, and practical, re-usable models and materials.

Contributions are welcomed from artists, teachers, and researchers, but also from administrators, students, community partners, Teaching and Learning Centre staffers, or more. (If you feel members of your team, or other officials at your university, might like to contribute independently or alongside you, please circulate this CFP to them!)

Collaboratively-authored works are very welcome.

Time frame

Please send proposals and/or descriptions of 300 words (for any of the above categories of contribution), along with a 150-word biography, to Kim Solga by 1 September 2017.

On literacy, in the age of misinformation

Around Christmastime, I had a small freak-out on Facebook. It was prompted by a comment left online in response to some public writing I had done elsewhere. The comment was not, strictly speaking, invalid, but it did do an impressive job of missing my point. It preferred to read my words superficially, filter them through a pre-existing axe, and then grind away, chips flying directly into my face.

Feeling misrepresented and misunderstood, I wrote the following on my FB page:

When I write for a public audience, I remember that most readers are barely literate. That is: they can read the words and understand the words. That is it.

Time for a radical humanities intervention, peeps. This is our year.

Harsh? Yes – as one of my colleagues (a totally sympathetic dude) pointed out. But, hey – it was to my friends, folks who know me. Besides, it got at what I had been feeling since early November: in a moment in which fake news = (alternative) “facts”, and pretty much everything that we encounter in the public sphere needs to be treated with exceptional care and more-than-usual levels of skepticism as a result, what exactly can be said to constitute civic literacy?

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I back-pedalled on FB, of course; I hardly wanted my friends and family to think I meant THEM. But I continued to stew about this question as the holidays gave way to the mid-winter doldrums. Then I met my (lovely) group of undergraduate students in Performance Theory. Smart? Sure. Engaged? More than most, I’d wager. But quickly it became apparent to me that not all of my cultural references were landing – and peeps, I keep up to date, rest assured.

What was going on?

This is when I learned – first from a colleague with an especially savvy and tuned in twenty-something daughter, then from the kids themselves – that our friends the millennials are not on Netflix; rather, they are hanging out on Youtube. So I decided to ask the class what was up. I asked them to tell me about how Youtube figured in their daily lives. They told me:

  • YT is free, which makes it a very compelling place to get both information and entertainment regularly and consistently;
  • it’s not uncommon for the students I’m teaching to spend significant amounts of time binge-watching extremely short Youtube videos on topics that range from applying make-up to the history of the 1960s;
  • the smart kids (IE: those in my classes) prefer Youtube to social media alternatives like Snapchat; it’s thought to be more “intellectual” (no, really).

I admit this caused another existential crisis in my brain. After all, the very idea that *intellectual* is now a competition between Youtube and Snapchat would, I think, make Willow Rosenberg turn in her electroshock hands and Buffy herself declare an unbeatable apocalypse. (OK, maybe not unbeatable… but up there with Glory, no doubt about it.)

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Where god, WHERE was Willow when we needed her?

OK. So I don’t actually think any of the students in my PT class would have voted for Agent Orange. But I also do not think the state of epistemological affairs they reported to me is unrelated to what happened last year in both Britain and the U.S. And note that I’m not suggesting that it’s the barrage of information we receive, across such a huge range of forums both free and paid, that’s the real problem here; I think of greatest import is the way that information is curated for us online, and the ease with which we are encouraged to accept curation as a kind of peer review by another (and less “elitist”) name.

Youtube queues up the next video it thinks I should watch, based on what I just watched, automatically; Facebook’s algorithms advertise to me in my newsfeed and encourage me to get into what my friends are into. Every website I visit links me to another website just like it. If I’m not careful about asking questions and remaining skeptical as I browse (a horrifyingly pacifying activity, btw), I can easily slide into consuming consensus tailor-made for me and my viewing habits by those who stand to benefit, monetarily and otherwise.

Youtube has something else important in common with The Donald and politicians like him (I’m glancing sidelong at both Rob Ford and Justin Trudeau, btw): it communicates a huge range of information with greater and lesser degrees of accuracy and fictional embellishment as unvarnished, as real, as just like (just for) YOU. It’s extremely easy to be seduced by its logic: that video is made by “real” people who want to share stuff that they know/that happened to them/that they do all the time; why shouldn’t we believe they know what they’re on about? Youtube as medium lends the messages of truthfulness and democratic access to every single thing posted there – that’s its power, but also the danger it poses to our ability to ask useful questions about how our infotainment is constructed, by whom and for whom, who pays, and who ultimately benefits from our willingness simply to believe in the truth of what we are seeing.

This, then, is the paradox of our social moment: perhaps more than ever before, we – the makers-cum-consumers of information, democratised – are in a position where we need to be critically tuned-in all the time, or else (we know what comes next). The problem is that now, more than ever before, we’re constantly, seamlessly, being encouraged to recognise our infotainment as real, authentic, simply “true” – and to accept the (curated) hunt for authenticity as itself an act of critical thinking.

Civic literacy resides inside this paradox – except that paradoxes are no longer considered valuable; they are complicated, so probably “fake”. The opposite of real, simple, true.

In a comment piece for the latest issue of TDR: The Drama Review, my friend and colleague at Northwestern University, Tracy C. Davis, examines this very terrain, and links it explicitly to questions about the state of public education:

I watched the Republican National Convention heartsore and with mouth agape. I felt for schoolteachers in conservative districts who, when classes resume, would have to swim upstream to explain plagiarism. I ached for the community organizers, religious leaders, and other civic-minded individuals who would try to counter the doctrine of hate, fear, and loathing that speakers urged upon the delegates and audiences at home. But more than anything, I wondered how a nation with compulsory education
in every state and where in 2015 the federal government appropriated more than $37 billion for K–12 education and $43.5 billion for post-secondary education could understand so little about logic.

(TDR is available here – note that Tracy’s article is free for download)

The problem of Trump (and of 2016) is a basic failure of education – of liberal arts education. It’s not a failure of educators in the liberal arts, please note, but rather of our ever-declining cultural investment in what that kind of an education means, should mean, and should do for us as a society.

The same voices that tell us, variously, that Hillary is crooked, that Obama wasn’t born in America, and that watching three videos on Youtube will prepare you to renovate your bathroom (or teach you all there is to know about the history of civil rights in America), are all heavily, financially as well as culturally, invested in making us think that there’s literally no “use value” in the arts, and that’s why going to university and taking a STEM degree is a smarter use of your time and money. These same voices insist loudly that universities make workers, or job candidates – not citizens – and that universities need to take in more and more students while also cutting programs and saving money (usually in the arts… because saving money is a public good, right?). Logic, as Tracy notes, fails utterly here – but the current of “common sense” is strong.

Tracy’s comment piece is, in the main, a reflection on her trip to the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, last summer. She went because she wanted to understand how Christian, conservative Americans were being asked to think and absorb information by their cultural curators – by those who purported to share their affiliations and have their best interests at heart. This is how she ends the article:

The quaint evasion and equivocation of political doublespeak may be a thing of the past, for it has become acceptable to tackle questions head-on with fabrication, unrelated elements, and sheer flights of fancy. Instead of utilizing critical thinking to scrutinize arguments, critical thinking has become a synonym for identifying the paradox, complexity, or conundrum, and then resolving it by the least rigorous means.

What do we do about this? How do we reclaim the public, civic value of rigour, paradox, of asking questions and watching skeptically, after all we’ve just been through?

I don’t have an answer; I’ve been holding off writing this post in part because of that. But I have a hunch that if there is an answer, it has a lot to do with theatre and performance – and thus with those of us who teach performance, both as a practice and as a set of critical social tools.

Performance is not, after all, simply the means by which Mr. D. got elected… although it really is that. Performance is a means of receiving and communicating knowledge; it is a set of social codes enacted in the public sphere; it is a history of civic engagement that reaches all the way back to the Greek polis, for better and for worse. And it is, of course, at the very, very heart of what I describe above – the Youtube culture that expects all mediated entertainment to come glossed as somehow “more real”, believable, confidence-inspiring, than the stuff that goes on in the streets (inaugurations and rallies and marches on Washington).

Unpacking performance as central to what just happened, to how we live now and ever have lived, means thinking carefully about what it means to “be real”, about who counts (or does not count) as real, about who decides, and about how the paradigms of “realness” shift and change over time – and usually in the interests of the wealthiest and most powerful among us.

How can we, as theatre and performance educators, bring this message to a broader public in a world that looks, but isn’t really, culturally literate? What are the stakes of this game? If information has become “democratised” to our detriment, can we democratise the teaching of performance theory and practice to help salvage this situation?

I’d welcome your thoughts on all of the above. A number of my colleagues are doing great work in this direction already (check out the special “Views and Reviews” section of Canadian Theatre Review 161, winter 2015, for example), and I’ve just been invited to guest-edit a special issue of Research in Drama Education which will explore this stuff and more.

But, truly, I don’t have answers right now, and I’m scared – like many of us. We’re being told, more and more, that the arts deserve less and less (money, time, interest) – even as we know, just as I did back in December on Facebook, that this is THE moment when the world needs radical humanities intervention most.

How, god on earth my friends HOW, do we make such an intervention, and make it land?

Uncertainly,

Kim

On outcomes

It’s arguably the most boring part of any course syllabus: outcomes. It’s also one of the most controversial; lots of us, I know, don’t want to be hamstrung by committee-sourced course or program objectives, in part because they seem so broad and vague as to do almost no work whatsoever (“to learn to think critically”; “to learn to write effectively”), and in part because a large part of academic freedom is the freedom to determine the course of a class’s journey on our own. That’s a huge responsibility, but it’s also a core part of what it means to teach at university level. No two classes, even those with the same title, ever look the same. The instructor’s idiosyncrasies, along with the strengths, weaknesses, energy, and willingness of the students, make a university classroom experience what it is.

It sounds idyllic – and at its best it is. But when it’s not at its best, well, it can be terrible. For every professor that shapes a student’s future with an inspiring syllabus and a dynamic personality, there’s a professor who takes the scattershot approach, lectures veering onto wild tangents, no course objectives to be found as tethers to student needs or experience. And then there’s the part where students don’t always know what’s expected of them, even in the best of teaching circumstances, other than the non-negotiable: to show up and look like they’re doing something valuable…

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I know that one of the reasons course objectives are controversial for my peers in the arts and humanities is because the requirement to have them is typically imposed from the top down. Governments tell university administrators, who tell faculty, that we need some centralised measures to ensure we’re on track with broader learning goals. Those goals often feed strategic plans, and those plans lie at the heart of the neoliberal university – where some faculties are typically “winners” (typically not A&H…) while others are not.

Objectives and outcomes, in other words, are not politically neutral things: they form one core part of measurement-based education policy, in which academic labour becomes less and less about engaging in creative research and teaching, and more and more about demonstrating the “impact” of research and teaching in order to justify the “handout” of government dollars for higher education / in the name of what used to be understood as a core public good. UGH.

And yet, from a pedagogical perspective, they make lots of sense.

Objectives and outcomes keep university teachers accountable: not (just) to administrators or governments, but more importantly to our students and ourselves. For those of us lucky enough to be empowered to make our own objectives and outcomes, course by course and program by program, they are exceptional planning tools. We get to think deeply about what it is we actually want our students to do in our courses, and we get to then think about how different lessons and assignments might link up with these stated plans.

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I’ve made a point of foregrounding outcomes (what I hope students will end up with) as well as objectives (things we’ll do together to try to get to the outcomes) on my course outlines for a few years now. I learned their value – as I learned the value of a number of things I previously believed both hegemonic and overly centralising – while teaching in England, where the expectation that everyone will offer clear course outcomes has been moot for some time now. I take students through my outcomes and objectives at the start of every term; I highlight a crucial caveat – you can only expect to attain these outcomes if you “take our course seriously” – and then I invite them each to create an outcome (what I call a learning goal) for themselves and add it to their copy of the syllabus.

I try to keep my outcomes front of mind as I plan assignments and even class lessons. But I have to be honest; once I’ve ticked the box of making my lists of objectives and outcomes I often pat myself on the back, and then sort of conveniently forget about them. I trust that I’ve got such good and clear intentions for each class, of course my assignments and lectures and discussion plans will feed constantly into them.

But do they?

Last December I decided to test my capacity to teach to my own stated goals by asking the students in my fall term performance studies class to feed back on how well they felt they had met the course’s outcomes. I did not do this in a survey, or in class; rather, I created a final exam question about it.

That meant the students were required to think fulsomely about both the class’s outcomes and the means by which we tried to get there; they were also asked to consider both when we had and when we had not reached outcomes, and to reflect critically on outcomes-based learning as a process through which they, as students, had traveled.

Here’s the question I posed:

At the outset of our course, Kim offered the following potential “outcomes”:

Students who take our course seriously and commit to our shared labour can expect:

  • To be introduced to a host of contemporary performance theories and practices;
  • To develop the capacity to critique a piece of non-scripted, non-traditional performance;
  • To learn the value and power of collaborative teaching and learning;
  • To practice critical thinking using written text, video, and audio tools;
  • To continue to improve their research, writing, and editing skills;
  • To practice, develop, and improve public presentation skills;
  • To experiment with independent and/or team performance-making;
  • To take some risks, make some mistakes, and have fun!

Did you achieve them? Some more than others? Did you not achieve some? Using “thick description” of key moments in or outside class, talk about how a selection of these outcomes contributed, or not, to your learning in TS2202. You need not talk about all outcomes. You need not be positive about all outcomes! Nuanced, honest self-analysis is welcome.

Seven out of 20 students (a statistically impressive 35%) chose to write on this question. Grades ranged from 36/50 (for a thoughtful reply, but one missing a clear structure or detailed descriptions of learning events), to 48/50 (for a reply that was well structured and well detailed, and full of careful self-reflection). Students were not judged on whether or not they deemed outcomes to have been met or not; I was far more interested in hearing them talk about how, and why, either result may have obtained.

Several students talked about the value of learning about non-traditional forms of performance; one made the point of saying his directorial practice was shifting as a result of our class’s exposure to work far outside the Western dramatic canon. Another noted that non-traditional performance forms required us to explore non-traditional ways of talking about those things, and then commented on the fear, but also the excitement, of engaging in that kind of exploration.

Most students mentioned the power of taking risks and making mistakes (likely because I mess up a lot in class, and never hide it, my students tend to get comfortable with error). One student described a moment early in the semester when they had shared an intimate, taboo piece of personal history, and the positive impact they experienced when I did not judge, but turned that sharing into a teachable moment. Another talked about learning that their mistakes in class could all be “manageable” (probably the most important outcome any university student can take from any class, anywhere!). Still another offered this helpful reflection on the first day of class:

On the very first day when we were asked to act out the syllabus I made a decision to let myself take risks and be silly. I decided to really try to turn off that voice that says ‘oh don’t do that, you’ll look foolish’. … I went away with that quiet voice telling me I was ridiculous but I didn’t listen, and I looked forward to every class that followed.

In general each student selected a range of outcomes to talk about, with some outcomes getting more attention than others across all seven papers. Every single student, however, wrote about the “collaborative teaching and learning” outcome. Some expressed continued anxiety about group work, but also took the time, in the spirit of the question, to think about the positive (if still difficult) experiences of shared labour they’d had – learning to account for others’ perspectives and personalities, learning to deal with clashes of opinion, and learning that sharing and negotiating ideas does not require consensus or group-think to emerge.

My favourite reflection on our collaborative classroom practice was this one:

What was very evident throughout the year was the collaboration between teacher and students. I am currently taking an educational psychology course, and there were a lot of tasks we did throughout the course that are akin to optimal teaching. For example, the first day of class we partnered up to discuss any questions we may have had about the syllabus, known as reciprocal questioning, which encourages a deeper understanding of the material being discussed. This goes for many of our group interactions throughout the semester. You also relinquished some control in the course content by allowing us, in groups, to pick some of the readings. This elevated sense of control, or human agency, in our learning increases motivation and self-efficacy.

The student who wrote this response did something very special for me. They connected my classroom labour to the prevailing pedagogical research, and noted how the collaborative environment I create for my students is geared directly toward an outcome I’ve not yet identified: providing students with the opportunity to build agency, and take ownership over a lifelong learning process. I will be adding that outcome to future syllabi, you can be sure – and crediting the student (whose name I know) in the process.

I’ll be putting an outcomes question on the final exam again; I learned a great deal from it about where my students see the connections between my stated goals and our classroom labours. These connections are sometimes where and what I expect them to be, and sometimes not – which means these answers offer me very useful fodder for future classroom planning. I think I’ll tweak the question next time around, though, to encourage balance: I’d like to hear a) where students met an outcome, and how; b) where they did not, and why; and c) what else we might have done to meet an important potential outcome, stated or not.

Now, I’d love to hear about YOUR outcome labours. What do you do to set objectives and outcomes effectively? How do you test their efficacy? Please leave comments! I also want to thank all of the students in Theatre Studies 2202F (2016) for inspiring me to think more, and more carefully, about how I remain accountable to them, to their peers, and to myself in our shared learning environments.

Kim

What could the future academic work force look like?

My last post (the final of my reflections on mobility and access over the holiday period) talked about the issue of feeling “trapped” in a faculty job, and wondered if there were ways university labourers could work together to ease what is an all-too-common, but often invisible, experience. As often happens to me – I think I may be a serendipity magnet of some kind – the virtual ink was barely dry on that post when I got a notification from the awesome Tomorrow’s Professor listserv about a new book that considers this very issue, as it asks questions about what the future of the academic work force might look like.

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The book is called Envisioning the Faculty for the 21st Century: Moving to a Mission-Oriented and Learner-Centered Model (Rutgers UP, 2016 – get it here), by Adrianna Kezar and Daniel Maxey.  It extends work that Kezar has been doing for some time, as the founder of the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success at the University of Southern California (though she now works at Santa Clara University). Based in part on a comprehensive survey of more than 1500 participants, ranging from non-tenured and tenured faculty to deans, administrators, and members of professional societies, the book explores ways to make faculty jobs more broadly equitable by reimagining the standard research-teaching-service, tenure-stream model.

I’ve not read the book yet, and thus cannot make any comments or judgements about its content here; I did, however, want to draw our collective attention to it because it presses on an urgent need.

Chances are we’re never going to be able to go back to the 20th century university model of extensive, full-time, tenured jobs supported by just a very small number of part-timers, and many of us lament this witheringly whenever we get the chance. Indeed, in my previous post I did too, noting that the disappearance of tenure-track jobs in my field is one of the reasons why the feeling of entrapment folds around me and my colleagues, as we desperately search for that ever-more elusive gig and, when we find it, cling to it with all our might.

Kezar and Maxey eschew the lament and take a different tack: they use the vanishing-tenure-stream problem as an opportunity to ask if that model is, in fact, one we want to return to. They don’t suggest moving away from tenure altogether, but they do put pressure on our knee-jerk assumption that tenure is the salve for every academic sore.

In the terrific online resource Inside Higher Ed, Colleen Flaherty writes a helpful, comprehensive review of Kezar and Maxey’s book. Here’s a chunk of that review, to give you a sense of the book’s investments and conclusions:

They begin Envisioning the Faculty by undressing the myth, held by some, that the “traditional” faculty model – in which the vast majority of faculty members are all considered for tenure, based on their teaching, research and service records – isn’t that traditional at all. It’s largely a 20th-century phenomenon, they say, and should be seen as one chapter of professorial history.

They don’t condone what they call the recent “devolution” of the faculty role, to a predominantly part-time workforce, however, and spend a significant time reviewing the literature suggesting it’s bad for students, instructors and institutions alike. Some examples: poor working conditions for adjunct faculty members (no job security, relatively low pay and lots of instructor turnover) have been shown to have a negative impact on student retention, transfer from two-year to four-year institutions and graduation or completion rates. That’s regardless of how skilled or committed adjuncts are.

Yet there’s room for improvement in the tenure-track model, as well, Kezar and Maxey argue, or at least what’s become of it. A disproportionate emphasis on conducting research undervalues teaching – including innovations in teaching – especially in the pretenure period, along with service, the book says. There’s also little room for flexibility in hiring to teach in new fields or account for “market fluctuations” – a common argument among administrators against more restrictive tenure-track hiring. Plus, tenure-track professors, now a minority across academe, feel the burden of service and shared governance previously spread across a great proportion of the faculty.

Flaherty also notes that Kezar and Maxey’s survey research indicates the importance of building common ground – what I called in my last post ally-ship – among university labourers of all kinds, which ultimately means thinking less autonomously and more collaboratively as scholars:

“There was almost uniform agreement among all stakeholders in our survey on all the items related to ensuring that faculty members have academic freedom, equitable compensation and access to benefits, involvement in shared governance, access to resources needed to perform their role, opportunities for promotion, clearly defined expectations and evaluation criteria, clear notification of contract renewal as well as grievance processes, and continuous professional development,” the book says.

Yet “this level of support is at odds with hiring practices over the past 20 years that have moved away from the professionalization of faculty.”

The book recommends meaningful discussions as to why beliefs about faculty professionalism don’t meet employment practices, but flags faculty “autonomy” as something that merits rethinking.Faculty as professionals in today’s environment may need to emphasize working collectively toward community, institutional or departmental goals, since it is unclear how well autonomy has served the academic enterprise as a whole.”

(My emphasis)

Questions about autonomy vs community in the academy are close to my heart. My commitment to collaborative academic labour is the main reason I went up for my recent promotion on the back of my substantial editorial work, rather than waiting until I’d written another solo-authored book.

The 20th century professorial model has encouraged us to fetishise the Oxbridgian stereotype of the dotty, genius prof in gowns in his/her (mostly his) plush office, beavering away alone while occasionally admitting students for sage wisdom and port. Obviously most of us don’t live the stereotype – it’s barely possible even for the Oxbridge sort now! – but we all know it, and it’s a compelling fantasy.

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Anthony Hopkins as CS Lewis in Shadowlands. OF COURSE I wanted to be a prof because of him!

The hall where my office is located is a series of mostly shut office doors; I’m used to seeing a bare handful of my colleagues when I’m at work. When we get together at faculty meetings and retreats we’re usually crabby about it and think it’s a waste of time. That, I suspect, is because we don’t really see ourselves as a community; we imagine we work alone, and our employment structure (40% research, which usually means stuff we read and write about alone; 40% teaching, which involves students but not other colleagues, typically; 20% service, which we all grouse about and try to get out of) reinforces this belief inherently.

The problem – as Kezar and Maxey note – is that this very structure, not just of university employment, but of our beliefs about that employment, contribute to the inequity that surrounds contemporary university faculty as the tenure-stream slips away. When the most privileged tenured faculty hunker down, look after ourselves and our students behind closed doors, and minimise service duties as much as possible to maximise research time, we pass the buck to others. And those others are usually rather less fortunate than we are: mid-career faculty (often women, or minority-identified men) who have been earmarked as “reliable” and are now stuck in work-horse mode; junior faculty looking for promotion to tenure; part time faculty looking for a tenure-stream job; graduate students already underpaid and scared for the future.

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Instead of buck-passing, could we team up, maybe even re-imagine academic privilege together? I’m looking forward to reading this book and thinking more about how systemic, faculty-led change at our universities might allow us to work better, together, and live more freely and happily, too. I’ll do a full review of it in due course.

Kim