Pedagogical spacing in the time of Zoom, part two

Last week, I thought about space, and about what a huge difference thinking differently about space can make to a classroom environment. Armed with the new spatial reality of COVID-19 quarantine, I returned to my memories of teaching in a dedicated active learning space (called WALS at my university) and reconsidered the lessons it provides me about how the space of teaching – the way we organize our shared physical reality – is central to pedagogical activation.

Now it’s Zoom-time, and working on Zoom can feel oddly like working in a non-place. (Hilarious sidebar: “utopia” comes originally from the Greek word for “nowhere”.) In our haste to “pivot” online in March we didn’t have a lot of room (physically or mentally) to think much past “get through the class”; now, though, online forward planning is all around us, and that means it’s time for us to figure out what the “space” Zoom affords can, and can’t, do for effective teaching practice.

One of the internet’s many images for “utopia”. Notice the several airplanes…

This week, using take-aways from my last post (have a look here; the tl;dr is in the pull quotes), I offer some preliminary ideas for how to challenge the “nowhere” pull of Zoom and re-orient our online teaching labour in ways that foreground the value of sharing physical space while learning.

1. DO NOT give up advocating for live, in-person classes.

My department was recently asked to come up with individual instructor plans for Fall. Would my class be online? Mostly online? Online with some key “live” components? Or priority-live? If the latter, I was asked to justify why.

I get this request – of course I do. But let’s not let the coercion of “justifying priority-live” erode our shared understanding, as teachers, of how important face-to-face is in the act of pedagogical engagement.

Online learning is, under the model we currently have, largely about transmitting content. That’s not teaching/learning – it’s reading. Learning in-place is about understanding our shared investments in knowledge; it’s about the importance of communicating with others, across difference, in building knowledge together. That work is spatially dependent, and spatially impactful. It’s live, in-person shit. (For more on this, I recommend late feminist geographer Doreen Massey’s 2005 book, For Space. On the pitfalls of online learning, see recent public writing by Naomi Klein and Mark Kingwell.)

“Online learning” could easily slide into passive, even propagandistic modes sold to us by semi-tech-savvy neoliberal leaders as “convenience” or “liberation”. It is neither; let’s not permit that to happen.

2. Make Zoom a SPACE of learning, despite appearances.

As online learning tools go, Zoom is actually pretty good: it allows us to be synchronous/in real time together.

(I know a lot of us have been strongly encouraged to avoid synchronous learning, but that’s a mistake if you ask me – especially in smaller classes. Let’s remember to advocate for synchronicity, too! The argument that asynchronous learning is best for online suits The Reality Before, when online learning was a choice made by people from specific demographics, not a necessity for all. The data will catch up – guaranteed.)

Zoom, thus, gives us the opportunity to interrogate the way online models shift our experience of learning together in-place, and perhaps even inadvertently highlights the key difference physical space makes to learning.

Authors and FOLD stars Jael Richardson (top right) and Amanda Leduc (bottom) chat with Steven Beattie about five years of the Festival of Literary Diversity, 4 May 2020, on Zoom. The synchronous, online FOLD 2020 was a HUGE success – thousands attended IN REAL TIME.

For one thing, when we Zoom, we’re sitting down! This is weird, and I don’t like it. The space of teaching, regardless of how we teach, is typically an active one: even if the students and I are seated at a seminar table together, there’s occasional getting up and sitting down, plus a lot of gesturing to emphasize ideas.

Over Zoom, seated and narrowly focused on a screen, we can easily physically contract. Our teaching and learning space then shrinks to the space of a chair and a frame, and it’s no wonder our affect folds inward.

My plan to counter this, in fall, is to begin each class with a spacing exercise. We’ll do a warm-up, just as we would in class; the only caveat will be that each warm-up will need to encourage us to use our learning space in novel, perhaps surprising, ways. I’ll also call for student input here: each week, I’ll invite guest warm-up curators to take over. (Students have the best warm-up ideas, by far.)

I’ll plan for this regular activity by asking the students, at the beginning of the semester, to ensure they have Zooming spaces that will permit them to stand up and move around (even just a bit), and that they will not be embarrassed to share. This might mean a bit of bedroom tidying or place-curation on their parts, but that’s ok – that’s part of the work of teaching and learning! And of course, I’ll share my reasoning with them. Which leads me to…

3. Introduce some “meta” to help students think about what it is they are missing, and why.

Not having a teaching space means an excellent opportunity to talk about that lack, about what’s missing from our shared experience. This talking, I think, needs to be ongoing, but it also needs to be seeded early.

I plan to spend a good part of the first session of any future online classes talking openly with students about our shared physical reality – what it means to each of us to “meet virtually”, what we gain and what we lose, and what my own research reveals about the way space shapes our shared, performative realities. (Which it really, really does. Just ask Judith Butler. I recommend her newish, very readable, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly [2015]. Consider assigning a chapter for your first class!)

Thinking meta-cognitively about teaching-as-space takes me back to the point in my last post when I talked about the need to work “on” space with the students in my active learning classroom. As I noted there, active learning classrooms can be initially baffling to anyone raised in lecture halls; Zoom is, in this fundamental respect, no different – and presents the same learning opportunities, albeit realized differently.

In other words, we need to spend time talking about space, no less on Zoom than elsewhere.

How are we feeling in our bodies?

Where are points of connection or disconnection from others?

Are we getting outside?

Can we step outside, together, for a minute?

What difference does that movement shift make?

These questions strike me as essential, if learning online is actually to take place. There are a lot of ways to activate them, and I’m hoping to think through options over the summer. I’ll come back to this issue in the fall and let you know where I’ve landed.

Meanwhile, though, as I said last time, I’d love to know what others are planning to do to re-orient Zoom-space and Zoom-time, and to continue to dis-orient the push toward a new, virtual norm (boo! hiss!). So, if you have ideas, please share in the comments!

Happy spacing,


Pedagogical spacing in the time of Zoom, part one

This is the first part of a two part post from Kim on learning bodies, spatial organization, and pedagogical reflection in the new teaching order. Check back next week for Part II!


I think we’ve officially shifted from “the great pause” to “the great login”. My back is fairly sore. I’m having a weird pain in my right knee. I blame Zoom.

I’m no fan of online learning, although I recognize it has many positives. It is accessible in ways that traditional, face-to-face learning sometimes can’t be. It is flexible, making space for those in tricky work or child-care (or elder-care, or other) situations. It is “independent” most of the time – which theoretically should be a very good thing.

The reason I dislike online learning is in some ways personal to my field: theatre and performance studies labour works best in the studio, full stop. But in other ways my dislike is not personal at all, but rather universal (I use this term with caution, rest assured) to our shared planetary experience.

One of these ways is the subject of this two-part post: online learning is a problem because it encourages us to forget about the difference SPACE makes.

In my last post, I talked about All Things Zoom-Teaching. I ended with some thoughts on the place of space in our larger discussions about what “pivoting to online” does to the pedagogical experience:

I’ve done a lot of reflecting over the past year on my embodied experience of teaching in [my new active learning classroom], a space where a) I’m not the physical centre of attention; b) students need to work together (at pods, where they are seated facing each other) pretty much all the time; and c) lecturing is simply not possible, really, because lecturing more or less requires a).

Now, fast forward 12 months: Zoom is an entirely different embodied experience of teaching, and now we’re having to do a whole lot more learning about the shape of the thing, what it’s doing to our bodies, to the choreographic whole.

If we’re going to have to keep online teaching all the things in September, we are going to need to talk, with our students and each other, a lot more about what this means to our bodies.

This reflecting has been humbling, profound – and ongoing.

Last weekend I was chatting with a dear friend in the UK; he’s a tech person but equal parts online cheerleader and skeptic. (I find the higher up you get in tech circles, the more true this becomes.)

I said to him, you know, the shape of quarantine – where we are all sequestered at home with individuals deemed ‘safe’, allowed out only with great caution, highly aware of our proximity to individuals deemed ‘risky’ – really brings into relief for me how much our identities as humans are tied to spacing; that is, to the practicing of place-making in relation to other (human and not-human) subjects in the world.

The tennis courts in my local park re-opened a couple of days ago. We are all OVERJOYED – not just because tennis feels “normal”, but because those spaces are tied to our sense of community-self.

This acknowledgement of space-as-matter(ing) is below the surface for a lot of us most of the time. It’s something most people right now are likely perceiving as fatigue, depression, anxiety, feeling “cooped up” – the host of affects that attend to this kind of radical shift in spatial norms. But for me (who has written a bunch of books and articles where spacing practices lie at the centre in one way or another) the perception of space’s ontological centrality is not just affective but also intellectual, and indeed pedagogical.

It’s caused me to reflect in fresh ways on my classroom experience in my active-learning (WALS) classroom over the last few semesters, and to think specifically about how that room encourages spacing practices that are at the heart of a great learning experience.

Once more unto the blog: this image of WALS UC 1110, my active learning classroom, has appeared here before. That’s the amazing Katie Flannery showing off her pod’s learning.

For example: I’ve realized that I need to actively choreograph the WALS space experience for myself and my students. This is more than just showing up and improvising; it’s a thing I need to pay attention to in the planning process, each and every week (as well as overall, before the semester begins).

Students’ pods, where up to 6 can sit together (see the image above), are ranged around the room; I need to face each student/pod as equitably as possible throughout the class. I therefore need to plan to move a lot; teaching thus becomes physically laborious, but that labour is essential or the room doesn’t “work”. I need to account for this physical labour in the exercises I program, but I also need to account for it in a parallel self-care plan, which needs to be part of the teaching schema I organize.

That is: I need to “prep” for self-care, for my own movement choreography and its impacts, just as I “prep” lessons for the gang.

The pods also need to be curated: I’ve learned the hard way that students get chummy quickly, and of course they default to sitting with pals as often as possible. If pals are at a pod together, that is license for hijinks! This isn’t to say students should not have agency in their in-class relationships, nor that they should be actively prevented from socializing in class (some of that is essential to paying attention, in fact). But it is a reminder that the pods need both my organizing hand, and a bit of mixing up – I need to build and shape and hone the students’ learning communities actively, along with them.

This too is work, the work of place-making, and it is pedagogically essential to a good learning community, and therefore to effective learning outcomes.

Alongside these revelations – that I need to account for my body in the learning space, and that I have to help the students to effectively organize their bodies in the learning space – I’ve realized that I also have to lay the groundwork early to shift students’ expectations of how our learning will look and feel.

The WALS space is a wonderful gift to us, but it is also not the norm; neither the students nor I are habituated to a de-centred learning set-up, nor are they used to thinking about teaching and learning as a spatial practice. (Thanks, years of stupid lecture halls.)

That is: I’ve realized I need to talk with my students, early and often, about the “meta” of teaching and learning, about how we learn as a function of space, and about what learning entails from our bodies in the different spaces where it takes place.

OK: so far so February.

But our new, public-health reality is Zoom-based, at least for now. So how do we port some of this reflective learning into The Great Login?

In the second half of this post, coming next week, I’ll think about how some of the take-aways I’ve highlighted above can work in Zoom-space. In the meantime, I’d love to know what others are planning to do to re-orient Zoom-space (and Zoom-time) in a way that is productive pedagogically. If you have ideas already cooking, please share!

Stiffly for now,



Virtual pedagogy: lessons from the world of sport

Today on the AC we are proud to share reflections by Cate Creede, a Toronto-based social scientist and core contributor at Fit is a Feminist Issue. Cate and Kim sweat it out together many mornings over Zoom, with a fantastic trainer and coach called Alex whom Cate works with IRL.

Below, Cate synthesizes the valuable, transferable lessons about student-centred online teaching that Alex models every day. For the AC team (Kim and Kelsey), these thoughts resonate deeply as we think about planning summer and fall classes online, and as we try to figure out how to empower and hold space for the young people in our lives in an inclusive, access-forward, feminist way.




Guest Author, Cate Creede

Like everyone else in the world, my life is suddenly filtered through a screen, including my work as a strategy facilitator, leadership and life coach and educator.  And like everyone who’s had to translate relational practice to a mediated environment, I’ve found it challenging – and a site of constant learning for myself.

One of my most fruitful sources about learning how to be a good online teacher and facilitator is my experience as a learner with my fitness coach.  Since the lockdown began, I’ve been working out almost every day with Alex Boross-Harmer, who was my real life coach and trainer in the Before Times.  She’s figured out how to translate her already-excellent teaching to an online environment – and in doing so, has reminded me again what good teaching is, both in one-on-one environments and in her classes.


Cate, with her trainer Alex Boross-Harmer, in the background

A few months ago, I was trying to figure out why Alex is such a powerful presence, compared to so many other teachers and coaches I’ve had in my life. With other coaches in small group fitness classes, I often find myself feeling inept, or like I can’t quite get the form right, or I’m hopelessly clumsy. It’s hard to articulate, but with many other coaches, even when they do and say all the “right” things, I can feel held back in a way. It’s not something specific like being adjusted, or told I should stay at a lower weight to focus on form, or lack of encouragement. Other coaches can do all those things “right,” and it’s fine … I can get a good workout, have a fun class. But what Alex does makes me feel simultaneously supported, challenged, encouraged, and stronger than I’ve ever felt in my life.

As I’ve been a learner in her virtual space during the pandemic, I’ve identified a few of the specific things she does that generate this empowerment for me.

  • She creates safety by modeling vulnerability and authenticity herself;
  • She uses whatever technology is available (in person or virtual) to create a playful environment that is conducive to exploring;
  • She intuitively identifies our individual “zones of proximal development” (Vygotsky) and encourages us to work in those edges;
  • She demonstrates her extensive knowledge through practical application (she was in grad school for kinesiology before she turned to coaching);
  • She designs and leads classes based on our needs, not her agenda.

What does this actually look like in practice?

A few months ago, Alex told me that her aspiration as a coach was to make a space so her clients feel that the hour spent working out is their best hour in the day. The most critical way she does this is by modeling vulnerability and authenticity. 

She does this by checking in about where we are before class starts – sometimes just with a thumbs up/side/down.  She has an honest, infectious, joyful energy – but she always makes it okay to dial back, be sad or anxious, or be tired.  She assumes we have no equipment, and makes that okay – our bodies and a mat are enough.


Cate, doing a handstand.

She talks about being grateful to be in the space with us, and acknowledges how it improves her own mood.  She calls us a team, not a class, and then she does the workouts with us. She looks like a super fit person – and yet openly acknowledges being sweaty or out of breath.

Over the week, our daily “superhero virtual workouts” have a shape: mobility, strength, ramping up, rest, mobility, strength, etc.  Every workout has a shape too – mobility, strength, conditioning, stretching – with many options within it. She pays attention to what each of us is doing, watching us closely through the screen, offering modifications, reinforcing form, and encouraging.

As she does the workouts with us, she is honest about where she is tired, where her body is tight or painful, where she needs to cut back on reps or go for the lighter option. Her authenticity (in her genuine, spontaneous reactions and affect) models for us how we can find our own path, trust that we know our own bodies, and it ensures that we have permission to adjust and slow down.

Together, this creates trust and confidence: she holds the space and for us so that we can safely push our own edges.

Which is the second major thing she does:  she creates a playful environment that is conducive to exploring.


Cate’s trusty workout companions, excelling at active rest between sets.

When I first met Alex as a teacher, hers was the first class I ever felt inspired to dance in – just because her joy at being in the gym is infectious. (Note: I am not a person naturally given to expressing joy). She talks about workouts as “adult playtime,” and since we’ve been home, she’s built things like handstands and crow pose, and variations on the same, into a more traditional “HIIT” workout format. She can’t help herself from dancing or strict pressing her dog between sets, and she calls attention to how delightful people look when working out with their kids, or playing with their pets.  Even though we are mostly on mute, Alex’ interactions and laughing at herself create a sense of playful community that feels mutually supportive.

With her, I am simultaneously fearless and 9 years old, and wise and strong and 55. I will hurl myself upside down in a handstand in the middle of the floor, and I will trust her when she tells me to slow it down. Sometimes we are leaping around, and sometimes we focus deeply on one tiny mobility movement.

It all feels enlivened: this playfulness creates an “enlivened safety” where we can push our own boundaries.  Every workout we do with Alex is designed to scaffold us to build confidence at the end of our current capacity and push it just a little further – and then she pays attention to each of us to mark and signal our progress.

As a coach, Alex has an innate understanding of how to work with Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development.”  Where she push our edges with weight or equipment in “real life,” in covidspace, she designs workouts that always leave a little room for each of us, independently, to reach for an extra few reps. She finds new ways for us to use our bodies – like rowing movements using just our arms against the floor – that require no equipment but get the job done.


Bags of books sub in for dumbbells as the team do bicep curls.

She notices and names the edge for each of us, intuits that precise moment where, with encouragement and detailed analysis and guidance for our particular bodies, we can take it one step further. She pays attention to the chat box on Zoom and offers a continual stream of modifications if needed.  Even while she is doing the movements herself, she is calling out individuals with encouragement or suggestions – “Serena, LOOK at that wall walk!” – and tracking when we’ve done something like a freestanding handstand for the first time (which we can then all celebrate together).

All of this playfulness and presence is backed up by Alex’ ability to translate expertise into practical application.  Alex, a trained kinesiologist, has designed our weeks to have a cycle, starting with mobility and strength on Monday, playfulness and strength on Tuesday, conditioning and strength on Wednesday, rest on Thursday, ramping up on Friday and “sweaty Saturday,” followed by another rest day. There is a lot of theory behind the design, but understanding it is less important than the lived experience of feeling that each day feels doable and like “the right thing for today.”

A screenshot of one of Alex’s Covid-19 online workouts

Alex’s workouts have always been shadowed by this kind of impeccable expertise, but in the covidtimes, she does an even more critical translation of theory into practice because she assumes we have zero workout equipment, and works from there. This in turn creates a sense of resourcefulness, in multiple ways – our bodies become our reliable tools, something to know and explore more than ever.  We use what’s at hand – like lululemon bags filled with books or cans of soup – to add new options to existing moves. We are all negotiating new existences right now – and the symbol of a bag of books (or, in Kim’s case, a summer tire from the basement!) as a weight reminds us that we have the capacity to mcgyver our lives, to deal with whatever comes, with a little creativity and a little joy.

What all of this adds up to, for me, is that Alex designs and leads classes based on our needs, not her agenda. Clearly, she gets something out of this – she talks about the importance of this community and her gratitude for having the team alongside her – but it never feels like we are doing something because she thinks it would be a fun Instagram challenge or she wants to show off something she is good at.  She recognizes that in this extraordinary time, we are in need of movement, in need of care, in need of connection, in need of joy, and in need of reminders that we are strong and resourceful. We do squats and lunges and wallwalks and move our bodies – but the overarching experience is of feeling – for an hour – like we are superheroes who can handle whatever else comes.

Working out in covidtime means pets are part of the process!

Two months ago, I was in the gym lifting heavy things. Now, I can’t imagine trying to lift an actual barbell.  Deadlifting or back squats seem to belong to another type of person altogether — “but that was in another country, and besides, the wench is dead,” to retrieve a quote from my long ago undergrad in English. Yet there’s something fitting, RIGHT NOW, about working out by moving a towel around on a slippery floor with our feet, doing step-ups on a kitchen chair, lifting bags of books. “If this is too much, take some things out of your bags,” enjoined Alex as we moved from curls to flies.

That’s how I feel right now. I’m lifting unfamiliar things, every minute, and I need to take some things out of my bags. Integrating this literal metaphor into my workouts – and into my teaching and coaching, too – is reassuring me that I can adjust. I’m not in it alone.

We’re all looking for community. And we’ll all adjust.

Cate Creede, PhD, is a consultant, educator, and coach who lives in Toronto, working mostly in the space of academic healthcare and higher education.  She also runs a youth development project in Uganda and writes for the Fit is a Feminist Issue blog. She is aiming for a successful freestanding handstand by the end of the lockdown.

You can find out more about Alex at

For more on Cate, see:








Looking back, looking ahead – part 2

On New Year’s Day I posted a look back at last semester, with three things I felt had gone quite well September through December. Herewith, part two of that post:

Improvement city.

1. I need, finally, to make a proper commitment to actual, effective time management in the classroom.

I am, as a professional teacher, better than most at keeping to schedules. But the fact remains that I routinely run out of time in my classes to talk thoroughly (or at all!) about important stuff I excitedly put on the syllabus at the start of the year (or in the prep at the start of the week!). The primary culprit is over-prepping, which I’ve written about before on the blog, but it’s also true that I welcome discussion in class and do a lot of things to frame it – a lot of my prep is, therefore, exercise set-up, and exercises can usually be modified or thrown out on the fly with no real harm done to my headspace.

The way I foreground team-based exercises in class, however, also means that inevitably some content stuff just gets missed out: the post-exercise discussion takes on a life of its own and then before I know it we’re at time and I never got to the CRUCIALLY IMPORTANT pocket lecture with which I was supposed to end the class…

Accidentally ending up with a rollocking class discussion is, of course, no bad thing: it’s just a blessing that also happens to be a time management problem for a teacher who really needs to get this key piece of the puzzle out on the table, so that next day the course can move forward. Without torpedoing next week’s class, and the class schedule after that.

My first reaction to our first awesome class discussion/total time management fail in my larger class (20th Century Theatre) this past fall was predictable:


Then I took a deep breath. And I realised: hey! I could just put my pocket lecture online. So I posted the notes to the “in class tools” page of our course blog, started the next class with them on screen, said a few words about some of the key ideas they contained, and asked the students to have a full read on their own time. Then, we moved on.

As the semester progressed, I realised – obviously belatedly since lots of my fellow profs already know this stuff (duh!) – that the web is my friend when in-class time starts to run short. It’s easy to put things on my class’s (relatively sophisticated) course blog – as text, or even as audio or video. It’s easy to shoot the students an email alert telling them it’s up. It’s easy to remind them that this will take about 5/10/15 minutes of their time, sometime between now and next class. Which means it’s increasingly less stressful to prioritise class discussions that look like they might run long. No more half checking out as we talk, with one eye on the clock. No more trying desperately to pull the chat back toward the lecture piece coming up next, so as to svengali a cool segue. Less time stress in every way.

Now that winter 2016 is here, I’ve decided to turn this revelation about the power of blended learning into an experiment a bit radical. My colleague at Brock University, Natalie Alvarez, and I have decided to team-teach our upcoming performance studies classes virtually. We will be recording a fair amount of content for the web to be viewed by students on their own, so that when we get together physically we can just focus on discussion, full stop. We are giving the students one of three class contact hours “back” in order to do this work carefully and in an engaged way, at least until reading week. (This is a mark of true blended learning classes: some contact hours are online, some in person.) And students will be asked repeatedly to engage with one another online by looking at each other’s posted work across the 200km between us, offering feedback, reactions, questions for discussion, and collaborative critique via the website.

I have unsuitably high hopes for what is a total experiment and could well become an unmitigated disaster. More in April!

2. I have indeed given the students the task of creating the course reader. With mixed results.

Back in May I reflected, with my former TA Madison Bettle, on the challenge of creating and maintaining supplementary material on the web that students will actually use, but will not use passively. My solution was to task this year’s cohort with creating a version of the supplementary research archive that Madison had made on her own initiative last year.

So, as per the spec, my 20th Century Theatre students are this year building the reader: each week two or three of them are assigned topics from a list supplied by me, and each week they must send me their draft contributions by noon on Monday. I do a light edit, ask for a handful of minor changes (and sometimes a bit of fresh investigation), and then I invite them to upload their final contribution, with images and media, to our course blog on their own. Once that happens, I provide official comments and a grade. (I also provide, in some cases, some last-minute quality control.)

The good? Some contributions are just amazing, most are perfectly good, and the students have thrown themselves into this labour, on the whole, with gusto. I even have some evidence, thanks to our mid-year anonymous class survey, that they are reading one another’s work!

The ho-hum? I’ve found editing some of the draft material incredibly onerous – I’ve realised that this task basically asks the students to create public writing, even if the “public” is just our class, and it occurs to me that I might need to prepare them better for this (upsettingly rare) task before I throw them into it again next year. I offered a “model” supplementary reader contribution in the second week of class, and I invited Madison to come and speak about the logic and intentions behind the reader’s original creation. Regardless, students seemed, at least on their first passes through the task, confused more often than not: is it an essay? If not, what is it? (Part of this is because too many students are only ever asked to write essays, of course. “Essay” equals “writing” for them. Which is HORRIBLE.)

Finally, I’ve discovered on the fly how to grade these things, and I suspect the grading process is not at all transparent to students going into the task for the first time. I’ve now engineered a grading rubric, and have come to the realisation that it needs to be shared with the students ASAP, and not just on a case-by-case basis. This should have of course happened at the start of the semester, but I was overly preoccupied trying to help them understand the purpose behind what they were doing in the first place. Oh well: never too late to clarify, especially where marks are concerned!

3. I need to find some windows. NOW.

Last semester I taught in a windowless room. The same room. Both classes.


(This is not the exact room, but it’s a pretty reasonable facsimile. Nice, huh? Yup.)





It is shaped like a Greek auditorium. At first blush this seemed great – I teach in a theatre program, after all! The room can provide several lighting states, has about six white boards that can be shuffled up and down, and comes with a full tech setup and plenty of room for guests.

In fact, the room is an albatross. Because the chairs and tables don’t move. And there are NO WINDOWS in it.

World, I ask you. How can a classroom with no windows be permitted to exist in 2015? Quite apart from the fact that our days on this green and sunny earth may well be numbered, I just don’t understand the logic behind making any teaching or learning space light-tight. Whatever that logic is, it cannot, to my mind, make up for the sheer fatigue we all feel trooping in there at 9:30am on a sunny day, to be hit by fluorescent lights and projector beams. I know my students are tired at 9:30 because they are students, and thus not inclined to rise before 10; I also know they are tired because the fecking room is a nightmare of unnatural stimuli that, evidence suggests, negatively impacts student learning.

I don’t know how to solve this one, or if it’s solvable, short of moving the class, periodically, outside as the weather improves in spring. Which I am not at all opposed to doing – because this is the view beyond the walls:


And on that happy note, a good semester to you all!


Reflecting on the academic year that was, part four (A Teaching Assistant’s POV)

GUEST POST By Madison Bettle


In 2010, I began my graduate studies at Western University. I finished my MA in English in 2011 and began my PhD a few months later. I’ve had multiple TAships over the years: Science Fiction, Detective Fiction, Narrative Theory (for first years), Jane Austen in Popular Culture, as well as 19C British literature. In these classes, I presented hour to hour-and-a-half long lectures. Over the years, I’ve also had the chance to do many “pocket lectures” (brief 10-15 minute lectures in the middle of a class, something I continued to do in Dr. Solga’s class). One of the most useful experiences I had was when I was given tutorials to run for Narrative Theory. I was able to design different learning exercises (such as asking my students to watch Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax – the original – and then requiring each group to respond to it using a specific literary theory: for example, Marxism, Postcolonialism, Ecocriticism, etc). I suppose my inspiration for “group work” exercises stemmed from this class (and I eventually got to apply my ideas in Kim’s classroom).

My research areas are Victorian and Postcolonial literatures, though I have “tertiary” interests in Austen and Postcolonial Ecocriticism. If someone asked me tomorrow to teach a course on Austen, I could do it without missing a beat. I’m currently TAing for an online first year class and we’re studying Austen’s Northanger Abbey right now. Great way to spend one’s summer!

My dissertation focuses specifically on masculine trauma, 19th Century adventure fiction (such as that by Joseph Conrad, author of Heart of Darkness, among other books), and the Indian Mutiny of 1857. I spend most of my days poring over historical manuscripts that specifically reference or recall the Mutiny in order to prove that adventure fiction writers, even 40 years later, were still haunted by the event. Nothing beats getting to reference “the horror, the horror” in daily conversations!

As Kim’s Teaching Assistant for 20th Century Drama this year, I spent most of the time outside of my comfort zone (and loving it). When I was first assigned this TAship last summer, my initial concern was that I wasn’t going to be a good enough resource for the students. They’d surely “sniff out” that I didn’t belong there.

However, after Kim dubbed me our “expert learner” I felt better about my role in the classroom. Based on my past experiences with different online platforms such as Twitter and Tumblr, I decided that the most effective way to help students (since I didn’t have a tutorial) was to use the resource already there: the class’s wordpress blog.

As Kim mentioned in a recent post on this blog, I created the “Supplementary Course Reader” tab in order to “reach out” to students and feel more involved in the class. I also had the opportunity to present multiple pocket lectures throughout the year, many based on posts I’d write for the Reader.

The Reader served multiple functions:

  • It provided a space for me to write down my “first impressions” of the assigned readings. Like the students, I was reading the material for the first time. Students often told me that seeing my initial impressions helped them shape their own approaches to the text as time went on. More often than not, Teaching Assistants are assigned courses outside their own area. For those looking for ways to still contribute to the classroom and student learning, I highly recommend this option.
  •  My posts took a number of forms: critical summaries, my own questions, additional research I discovered, and even a few informal essays I wrote in response to the course material. I changed it up every so often because I knew students wouldn’t necessarily have the time to read more extensive posts (and I sometimes didn’t have enough time to do more). Additionally, each student learns differently: some need summary, some struggle with asking the right questions, and some need help moving beyond the material itself. A “Supplementary Reader” isn’t more information students “need” to know; the Reader provides students the tools to better appreciate and understand the primary material they’re reading. In fact, I was rewarded by my efforts as one of my students approached me after I posted about language in Maria Kizito; she told me she was inspired by the lesson and then chose to write her final paper exploring the issue. I’m very happy to say that student was recently accepted into the English MA program at Western.
  • “Historical Background”. Given the vast amount of history touched on in the many plays we read this year, there was a ton of information that students wouldn’t necessarily be aware of, nor would they have time to learn about it formally in class. Some of my posts, especially regarding Residential schools in Canada (in relation to Tara Beagan’s play, Miss Julie: Sheh’mah), the AIDS crisis (for our week on DNA Theatre’s The Last Supper), and the Rwandan genocide (for Maria Kizito, as well as for Michael Redhill’s Goodness), provided historical information rather than an “argument” in relation to the primary texts. I was happy to see students draw on the information they learned from the Reader in their own class presentations, particularly in the “Peer Teach” exercises that I helped lead in our class.

While all posts were extremely interesting to research and write, my favourite by far was my very first post on A Doll’s House, the first play listed on the course syllabus. As someone who specializes in the nineteenth century, it meant a lot to me to be able to share my knowledge of my own area with the students at the very beginning of the year. I was able to demonstrate (despite my lack of background in 20th Century Drama) that I could still talk about relevant course themes in critical ways.

In Kim’s post on May 19, she suggested asking students to create their own Supplementary Course Reader as a way for them to engage with the course material. I am thoroughly on board with this idea, as I think, once students get the hang of it, it is a great (and safe) space for them to push their knowledge of course material beyond the course itself.

Moving the discussion of the Supplementary Course Reader in another direction, however, I’d like to end this post on issues relating specifically to Teaching Assistants. Many of you reading this are most likely academics or teachers. You went through graduate school and were may have been a Teaching Assistant yourself. The dynamic between Professors and Teaching Assistants is something many institutions are still trying to get “right”. I’ve heard some horror stories over the years from colleagues and I can’t tell you how grateful I am to have had such positive experiences.

However, while all my experiences for the past five years have been positive, no TA assignment afforded me with as much opportunity, knowledge, and pleasure as my recent TAship with Kim. Although she was under no obligation to include me to the extent that she did, her willingness to support my individual learning and teaching pedagogy gave me the necessary expertise and confidence to one day teach my own course.

My Supplementary Course Reader, therefore, was more than just a resource for our 20th Century Drama students; it is a testament to Kim’s treatment of me as an equal, and for that I am forever grateful. In these uncertain times for Graduate students, I can only hope that other Professors look to their Teaching Assistants the way Kim looked to me. I also hope that one day (should I ever become a Professor) I might inspire in my Teaching Assistants the same passion for an area outside their own research that Kim instilled in me.

Madison Bettle