Summer swag! (Read on for free stuff from my new issue of RiDE!)

 

THE COVER AS A PICTURE

It’s here!

Many of you know that I’ve been at work for some time on a special issue of Research in Drama Education (RiDE), a performance and pedagogy journal based in the UK. The issue is called “Theatre and Performance vs the ‘Crisis in the Humanities’: Creative Pedagogies, Neoliberal Realities”, and it traces many of the same issues that have long been my concern here (and elsewhere): around academic labour in the neoliberal academy; around the role performance plays in addressing social issues far beyond the traditional remit of ‘theatre’ or even ‘the arts’ more generally; and around potential solutions we may already have at hand to best manage our ongoing imbrication in the now-normative ‘crisis’ in higher education, especially liberal or arts-based education.

The invitation to guest-edit an issue originally came from Colette Conroy, a resident RiDE editor, as a result of my work on the blog – and so it seems especially appropriate, and makes me particularly happy, to announce its publication in this space.

If you or your library have a subscription to the journal, you can access the entire issue online here.

But as a thanks to those of you who read regularly – and especially to those of you reading in the middle of summer! – below I’m including a URL that will give you free access to the issue’s introduction. It can only handle 50 clicks, though – so get in there early.

Thanks to you all for your ongoing support!
Kim

“Theatre and Performance, Crisis and Survival” (an excerpt from my introduction to the issue; the link to the full article follows)

‘Theatre and performance vs the “crisis in the humanities”’ has a very personal origin story.

It was late 2012, and I was working as a Senior Lecturer in Drama at Queen Mary, University of London – pretty much my dream job. My then-husband and I were living in South London, in a neighbourhood that had once been, perhaps, not much to look at (though a happy enough home to immigrants and regular working people) but was now full-on gentrified. We rented a two-bed garden flat that cost more than 75% of my take-home pay. The rest of our finances we cobbled together from J’s tech-entrepreneur income. Some months were way up, and some were way down.

So far, so global city. But life at work was also less manageable than I’d imagined it would be.

I’d been warned by colleagues that the UK academic system was very different from that in Canada, with a lot more faculty-side administration, HR-driven systems that gave the feel of a ‘corporate’ university structure, and of course the dreaded REF exercise: the ‘Research Excellence Framework’ that requires all departments in all UK universities to submit their top research ‘outputs’ for measurement against one another, in a Game of Thrones-style competition for league table status and future funding. When I arrived at QM, I was fully aware of all of these fresh challenges, but not prepared for how all-encompassing they would feel, day in and day out.

So this, I realised about three months into the job, is what it feels like to work in the neoliberal university.

Now, seven years on, I’m back in Canada at Western University, in southern Ontario. While we don’t yet have a REF to dread, our new provincial government is driving hard to implement quality-measurement tools that will be keyed to university funding around the province in the future. Western is finally emerging from a number of years under a dogmatically STEM- and business-forward administration, and our new president (a theatre scholar!) is one bright light at the end of this tunnel. But things are hardly about to change overnight, if they change at all: the aforementioned provincial government has just delivered punishing budget cuts that have seen my faculty’s (Arts & Humanities) part time workforce reduced by over 75%, and morale is the lowest it’s been in years. To try to save ourselves, teams of Deans and other senior administrators from Western fly regularly to China, desperate to attract a life-line’s worth of foreign-student investment. We continue to ‘internationalise’ as much as possible, imagining that is the key to our survival.

Welcome to the neoliberal university-as-normal.

[To read on, click here!]

 

 

 

On being a Canadian Scholar in the British Academy

I’m back. On 20 June 2012 I left Western University, and Canada, for the Drama department at Queen Mary, University of London; on 17August I arrived back in little London, Ontario (also affectionately known as “The Faux”), and to the new Theatre Studies program at Western. (Click here to read a bit about us.) After 26 months in the UK it was a hard move to make; I was heartbroken to leave my brilliant colleagues at QM, and sadder still to say goodbye to my husband and dog (who are still in south London, keeping the home fires burning). But there’s no doubt about it – life as an academic is far better in Canada than it is in the UK, at least from where I’m sitting, on a tenure track post at a major research school. (I’m very well aware there are fewer and fewer of the former, and that the future of the latter is in constant flux under the current federal Canadian government; those issues will have to wait for another time.) So returning home has been hard, but it’s also been a relief.

My time in the UK academy was a paradox, a constant negotiation: at turns exhilarating and unbearably frustrating. I’ve written before on this blog about the stupidity of the REF, and about the waste that so much academic administration makes, both times from within the UK system and (negatively) inspired by it; today, though, I’d like to reflect on what I learned in the UK, from these very negatives, and from the relative calm of the other side of the ocean.

As the new term at Western has gotten underway, in the last couple of weeks I’ve found myself talking a lot, and thinking even more, about where I’ve just come from. I’ve told the (complicated) story of my time at Queen Mary over and over again to my colleagues here, and I’ve heard from them over and over again how sorry/how glad I must be now to be home. In the process, I’ve realised that a lot of the things that made me utterly crazy while inside the UK system are actually profoundly instructive, even inspiring for me now: that while they made my life difficult in situ, from here they look like teachable moments.

My goal in this post, then, isn’t to kvetch post-hoc about everything that sucked over yonder; aside from being predictable and boring, that wouldn’t be very useful – nor very accurate. Instead, I want to talk about how some of the challenges that I encountered in the UK academy offer valuable lessons for those of us still very fortunate to work in a university environment where research time is protected above all, where teaching is valued and supported well, and where the administrative load is either kept to a minimum or offset by significant teaching relief and/or dedicated research leaves. I wouldn’t have guessed, six months ago, that I might be writing a blog post about (for example) what the REF gifted us, as well as about what it stole from us, but there you go: breathing room, and a bit of peace and quiet, can heal and regenerate in unexpected ways.

So, herewith, three phoenixes from the UK academic ashes.

1. Lots of administrative duties are stupid and time-wasting. A number of them are absolutely not. 

Academics I know fear administrative workload creep for very good reasons. The UK government, as I’ve argued before, has gotten quite a lot of traction with its constant check, monitor and measure tactics, making teachers and scholars far, far too tired to fight the really big fights properly. The Harper government here in Canada is not so far behind. But for every box I ticked and student absence I logged at QM while slowly dying inside, I also learned that there can be real value in things like second marking policies, designed to ensure students receive a fair, agreed-upon grade for large pieces of work, and pastoral care schemes, designed to save vulnerable students from attrition at crucial times in their undergraduate or graduate careers.

Now don’t get me wrong, especially if you’re reading this from my side of the pond: I’m not suggesting we start marking each other’s marking on an intensively structured basis as UK teachers do, and I’m definitely not suggesting universities mandate that we take student attendance (if yours does, I’m truly sorry). Second marking, for those who don’t know, is the practice of “check” marking other colleagues’ students’ work; it consists of you reading the work, then your colleague’s feedback on it, and then chatting with that colleague about both alongside the mark he or she has proposed for each student. At QM, second marking was mostly a collegial process, and after the chat we’d agree on grades and release them to the students in a fairly timely fashion. Collegial, yes – but also lots of work for very few real shifts in grades; often, it felt like work we need not really have bothered with, except to tick the box. As a blanket task, then, second marking seemed, and still seems, to me to be largely a waste of time. But in principle it’s a super idea, because it invites other colleagues regularly into our teaching rooms, mental and textual if not always physical, and opens up space for helpful conversations about best marking practices. (When I got stuff wrong according to a second marking colleague, I always, without fail, learned something from that colleague. I was usually annoyed, but I really did learn.)

At its very best, this is what “second marking” can offer North American university lecturers accustomed to marking in a silo, handing work back when we’re done, and then praying for not too much student blowback. Wouldn’t it be great if we actively supported and mentored one another as markers, as we often do as teachers in the classroom when we observe one another, and as we often do with our TAs informally? Would it really be so difficult to implement that kind of mentorship formally, for teachers at all levels, so that every term marking mentors were visible and available in the department, ready to help with those “tough” cases every teacher encounters in every batch of papers? You know: those assignments where you’re just not sure what to say or what grade to assign, where you wonder what your colleagues would do in this case – if only you felt OK asking them to read the paper and weigh in? How might we implement such a practice in a way that could generate effective support, especially for younger faculty but definitely for all of us, without making too much extra work for everyone?

If we begin from a place that values both the labour and the time and breathing space of the workers in question, I bet we can come up with something good.

2. Orwellian working conditions can also create valuable alliances, and cherished friendships.

Would we all prefer not to have to do the excessive paperwork that characterised my time at QM? Without question. But because I did, I had to get to know my colleagues, and I had to learn to work well with them, and, lo and behold, I got to like each of them. I find it remarkable that, despite their often strenuous workload, my Queen Mary colleagues are all more or less friends, and often really good friends. (Now I’m their friend too, and I cherish that.) Crappy committee meetings were inescapable, but the post-meeting coffee klatch at The Coffee Room or pint at The Morgan Arms was a small and welcome consolation every time, a chance for everyone to breathe, remind ourselves that we are human, that we are in this together, and that we all need to remember to ask about one another’s outside lives and really listen to what’s going on in one another’s worlds, and regularly.

Sure, QM Drama is a very special place, where people are nice and we all gel brilliantly; sure, lots of other departments are grotesquely acrimonious, and the meetings take place in a small room devised by Sartre. But I’d like to think that – again, at its best – working inside an administration-driven system might pull us, as humans who all seek so much more than paperwork in a satisfying day, a bit closer together, might encourage us to find the time to be together under different circumstances as often as possible. Often is probably not often enough (it wasn’t for me), but the potential is still there, as is the need. Something to think about for those of us who work in departments where we tend to pass each other in the twilight, moving silently between classroom and office and home: we don’t need loads of busy-work as an excuse to spend time together, as humans rather than as co-workers. We don’t need to be fast and firm friends to make some time for a proper drink and a chat about life, the universe, and that latest book project. We just need to remember that this kind of work is valuable, too – as valuable as research or teaching labour.

3. The REF is complete and utter bullshit from start to finish. But I’ve now read a hell of a lot of my colleagues’ fantastic work.

The REF is a horse’s ass; there is nothing more I want to say about its exquisite badness (to borrow a glorious adjectival phrase from the talented “Bad Feminist” Roxane Gay). What shocks me today is realising that there is actually a bit of good in the REF, aside from the kudos and pound signs it generates for the lucky winners of the grading lottery. Without question it wasted a lot of our time, on “dry runs” and “research narratives” and crying over letters with stupid colour-coded pass/fail lights on them. But it also asked us to spend time on one another in ways that, I now appreciate, meant I got to learn a lot about my colleagues’ work in a concentrated way that I doubt I otherwise would ever have done.

I got to read early drafts of Catherine Silverstone’s latest, terrific paper on queer kids in Shakespearean cinema; I got to help Ali Campbell take stock of the work he’s done among communities of elders and children in east end London over the last five years and make important connections among his disparate projects, leading toward his next big piece of work; and I was inspired to read, from cover to cover, Jen Harvie’s outstanding, important new monograph, Fair Play: Art, Performance and Neoliberalism (Palgrave, 2013), a book I loved and valued so much that I discussed it at the end of a review essay I’ve just published in Theatre Survey – a piece that was on the whole inspired by my time in the UK academy, and at Queen Mary in particular. (You can check out the journal, and the essay, here; for a taster of my comments on Jen’s book, see below the image at the end of this post.) Jen, Catherine, and Ali became truly inspiring colleagues, not just faces in neighbouring offices and not just friends, through this (otherwise truly gruesome) REF process, in part because as the UK government is busy making us tick its tyrannous boxes, it’s also requiring that we make the best of the work, find ways to support one another through it. And so I read, and questioned, and suggested, and learned; and so I’ve returned home to Canada richer, more inspired, and more hopeful for my own research.

I never want to go through the REF again (I’m betting Catherine, Ali, Jen, and my other colleagues don’t either, alas!). But it has given me the gift of new ideas, fresh thinking, warm inspiration. Nobody is more stunned than me.

Cheers, Queen Mary Drama gang! I feel the loss of you each day.

Kim

 

 

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(Mario Delgado and second year students in the studio at QM)

From What Are You Reading? By Kim Solga, Theatre Survey 55.3 (September 2014), p. 397.

“…The great strength of Fair Play is its thick research: working within Ric Knowles’s “material theatre” model, Harvie musters theory, criticism, popular press materials, a vast amount of public policy documentation, and a good measure of sociology and cultural geography to her cause. She begins with an introduction that defines her key terms and lays out the scope of her project before moving on to four case-study-driven chapters, focused variously on labor, the artist as entrepreneur, space and access, and public-private funding models. Each chapter takes up the book’s two basic but urgent research questions: In what ways do artists fall prey to reproducing neoliberal models as they make work under what [Lauren] Berlant might call the “crisis ordinariness” of arts funding today? On the other hand, in what ways do artists model different, more productive kinds of relation in the face of neoliberalism’s false social contract? Because Harvie is driven by the dialectic inherent in this pairing, the book is admirably balanced. It asks readers to weigh the evidence, and to think about how the arts are and are not better off—and how we, as humans living in a world made more humane by art, are and are not better off—under the status quo. Fair Play ultimately makes a strong yet never depressing case for the ‘not,’ [but] Harvie leaves us with real hope that something can be done.”

 

When work gets in work’s way (on the tyranny of administration)

I love summer. Most academics do: it’s when the pressure valve opens just a bit, when the daily grind of the term gives way to open space – to take a proper deep breath, to dive into the pile of books that has been growing steadily up one side of the desk, to get out the research and writing to-do list and begin the new project that has been waiting patiently for term’s end. Contrary to popular lore, most of us do not spend our summers in one long, blissful holiday; if we work at research-intensive institutions we are expected to maximise our summer time to get the writing of articles, books, and other research contributions done. Also contrary to popular lore, we don’t all eagerly await summer because we hate teaching or are bad at it: most of us quite like teaching, many of us are very good at it, and all of us, if pressed, will explain how much we learn from our students each year, how much they teach us in particular about who we are or want to be as teachers and scholars.

The real reason I love summer – and I suspect I’m not alone here – is because so much of my time during the teaching term is taken up with non-teaching, non-research related tasks that are frequently unnecessary make-work projects – in other words, administrative crap. Now, I’ll say straight away that not all administrative tasks are classifiable as “admin crap” – many have important roles to play in the management of students’ academic progress, the shaping of new programs of study, and the fair, safe running of the university for all of its employees. Still others are geared toward ensuring that teaching and learning practices and goals are generally consistent within a department or school. Many of us know when we are engaged in a valuable administrative task because it feels like a task worth doing: pleasure is gained from the job well done, and I return home at day’s end knowing that, for better or worse, the labour of the day was significant and meaningful.

Administration

A lot of university administrative work is not like this, however. More and more, the make-work tasks are taking over our days, and they are getting in the way of important tasks that truly need our energy, attention, and emotional investment – whether those tasks are teaching, research, or indeed admin-related. Here in the UK, the problem is acute: many days during term time I have rushed into lessons at the last minute trailing hastily-written notes because my prep time was taken over by: counting student absences and sending out warning emails; or attending a meeting that ran overtime and at which my contribution amounted to about five minutes of speaking; or talking a colleague through the process of completing an online form hidden cleverly from those who most need access to it. You get the idea: stuff that only sort of seems necessary, and that, the more you think about it, begins to take on the air of the Kafkaesque.

And that’s just the banal day-to-day; more significant everywhere now is the admin crap generated by the urgent need for university administrators to account, constantly, to government funding bodies, anxiously assuring those bodies again and again that we do indeed know how to do our jobs, and that we are indeed teaching our students things they need and want to know. Again, let me stress that accountability is important, and that the people who pay for public universities – IE: all of us – need to be given clear opportunities to understand the work we do, how we do it, and why it matters. I do not know a single colleague who would dispute this. But in so many places, the measuring of a thing’s putative “value” now risks overtaking the doing of the thing as priority #1, and the results, for all of us who absolutely believe in the value of the things we do at universities, are profoundly disquieting.

The UK government’s REF (a huge research measurement exercise), about which I wrote a while back in a post on the language of “impact”, is a perfect example of how the elevation of measurement over achievement is actually threatening the quality of research and teaching across the nation’s universities – not to mention the emotional wellbeing of tens of thousands of staff. The REF required each member of academic staff at UK universities to submit four “outputs” – bureaucratic code for books, articles, and practice-based research documentation – created in the last five years for evaluation; that doesn’t seem like much, until you realise that not all “outputs” are considered equally worthy or valuable, and that a shocking amount of time and energy is spent, during REF preparation exercises, deciding which four “outputs” staff should submit, which have the best chance of getting an “A” for international significance, and which tell the right kind of “narrative” about the staff member and the department as a whole. Failure to produce four “good” outputs for the REF could result in a staff member not being submitted for measurement/judgement in the final exercise – with generally unclear consequences, though the dark possibility remains that some such staff members might yet lose their jobs.

As a result of this set-up, fear, anxiety, and rage ruled the months leading up to the REF’s late 2013 submission deadline for many colleagues around me. A lot of tears were shed, some privately, some in small groups. Livelihoods were on the line. And for what? We aren’t talking about people who were doing their jobs badly; we are talking about people, mostly very hard working staff members and often very good teachers, who were terrified of failing an arbitrary measurement exercise, feeling shame and worthlessness, and possibly even being fired as a result. And, even more ironically, we have little evidence the REF encouraged better research in any case: mostly, it just encouraged an excessive, hasty amount of it. If my own experience (as a reader of books and book reviews, a book review editor for a major scholarly journal, and a peer reviewer of manuscripts for various presses) during the most recent REF period is any indication, the raw numbers of academic books and articles produced in the UK in 2012-13 increased dramatically as quite a lot of work that was not really ready got published anyway, simply in order to meet the deadline. The government wanted books to count and boxes to tick; what it got was a crush of exhausted, frightened researchers doing far less than their best work for all the wrong reasons. And, of course, many of us were not just drained in the office – we were also a mess at home, and not exactly at our best in the classroom.

The REF is an exceptional example that, for me, proves an upsetting new rule: everywhere my colleagues work, from Canada and the US to the UK, Asia and Australia, the narrative we hear again and again from both government and the media – that universities need to be better at training students for “good jobs,” and need to prove they are worth the money everyone is spending on them – goes hand in hand with an increasing refusal to trust that the work we do is of intrinsic value, and that such value may not always be easily measurable or marketable. The pervasive contemporary cultural anxiety that universities are decadent bastions of useless critical thinking, and that they need to be measured up in order to be dressed down according to the new “realities” of the global economy, breeds soul-destroying make-work tasks for academics who would otherwise be spending more time and effort thinking about teaching, or working on new and innovative research. And it breeds the measures that trap us in those tasks, despite our dread, our fatigue, and occasionally our half-hearted protest.

Thinking about this now, it strikes me as no surprise: the neoliberal capitalism that has taken such firm hold in Anglo-America fears free thinking more than any other thing in the world, because free thinkers tend to endanger profiteers. And universities are not just the places where we train free thinkers – they are also places, perhaps one of the only places left now, where we insist that free thinking is a social good, of real and proper value, something that every citizen of every nation needs now more than ever to know how to do. Weighing us down with the pressure to account for our actions at every step, and in language bureaucrats can understand, seems on reflection a superb way to shut us up.

Every summer, when I dig out from under some (most) of the admin crap that weighs me down, when I breathe, look around, and see my research and writing, my lesson planning for the year ahead, the work I love doing and that feels, to me, like the kind of work that has real, human, social worth, I feel grateful for the job I have. But it’s a brief respite. If more of us had more time and space to breathe, to be curious, to plan creatively for work yet to come, imagine how much more – how much better – we could achieve, and how much of that we could share with our students, future thinkers and global citizens. What a world we might make then.

Just a smidgen lighter,

Kim