Just coping (an imperfect how-to guide)

God, what a miserable few weeks it has been! Post-holiday doldrums followed hard by start of term, and then…


I’d offer a trigger warning – but what’s the point?

Well, we know what then. Anyone who cares about progressive, inclusive education, human rights and social justice, LGBT+ rights, the United Nations, environmental protection and food security, and myriad other things that many of us in the Anglosphere have been taking for granted for some time now has, I wager, been feeling rather down since Friday, 20 January. Things have been bumpy, to say the least.

My Facebook feed has been filled with friends and colleagues talking about the many things we can all do right now to help support those left especially vulnerable in the wake of Trump et al. (Marching is good; please also send your money.) I’ve taken much inspiration from them. But I also know that I’ve struggled to keep my own head above water these last few weeks. Not because I am anything like as vulnerable as those most affected by the chaotic death spiral of “executive orders” and gross cabinet appointees swirling steadily toward armageddon in Washington, but because, well… It’s the middle of term and the middle of winter and things kind of already sucked, without the Trump-ocalypse turning up to further fuck my S.A.D. vibe.

This time last year I was in real trouble. I was buried under a heavy administrative load as I, along with one of my colleagues in Theatre Studies, juggled multiple new recruitment initiatives and the planning of a splashy program launch party alongside our teaching labour and research projects. I was finishing an edited book, which meant intellectual work plus the palaver of wrangling colleagues/friends whose contributions were behind schedule, while also fending off my increasingly anxious publisher. And I had made the mistake of jumping head-first into a relationship with someone who looked mighty great on paper, but who turned out, in the fullness of time, to be utterly unsuited to me.

Imagine if I’d known then that Donald Trump was going to win the damn election!


Thanks to my dear friends and my outstanding department chair I made it through February and March 2016, realised I needed a better work-life balance plan, decided to cut out work emails on weekends and over holiday periods, and generally set about paying better attention to my life. I feel a lot better now; in fact, I feel well enough that in the weeks since Mr Trump Went To Washington I’ve been doing a number of things designed, simply, to help me cope with the pool of heavy affect that has settled over my heart.

As it turns out, these are also things that, in normal times, could help those of us who teach and support young people for a living to care for our own emotional wellbeing and sustain our forward momentum.

So I thought I’d share them.

Take a friend out for lunch. My office neighbour, Kate, is a wonderful human being and sometimes I see her when we are both on campus for teaching. But we are busy and she lives in Toronto and we are busy and did I mention how busy we are? So a couple of weeks ago, when I was planning a day of work in the city, I emailed her and asked her if we could have lunch together while I was there. She was totally game – but then her book deadline got in the way. So I said: fear not! I will come to you and I will bring the lunch! We ended up having burgers and deep friend pickles (OMG SO GOOD!!!) and milkshakes and sharing our news in the sunny front window of Rudy’s on College. What bliss.

Have a drink over Skype with someone you love. Most of my friends aren’t in the town where I work; they are in London, England or Toronto or Berlin or San Diego or Brisbane or Halifax or… you get the picture. Academics live a nomadic life, leaving waves of loved ones behind at each career turn. I don’t see enough of my folks, so at the suggestion of my dear pal Jen Harvie I’ve started to make Skype/Facetime dates with friends abroad. Recently I’ve had two, both with chums in Toronto when I couldn’t make it to the city. Sure, we might talk a bit about work, but mostly we gossip about boys (at my instigation; I’m single, straight, and on the internet…). A drink in hand makes it all the more fun.

Go for a long walk, maybe with an animal. My dog Emma provides a built in excuse for long walks; she’s portable, so sometimes I throw her in the car with me and we travel to friends and their trails elsewhere. We had a fantastic, nourishing time walking on the glorious Niagara Escarpment with our friends Susan (human) and Shelby (canine) a couple of weeks ago; you can read more about that adventure here.

Have some sex. Oh yes, I’m quite serious! It’s a gesture of care for your body, a reminder of your beautiful, flawed, awkward, delightful humanity, and a chance to be held, supported by, and connected to another human being for a moment, just when that kind of holding, support and connection are lacking in the wider world. It also totally counts as exercise.


Emma the dog. You didn’t think I’d share a photo of the sex, did you?

Make a beautiful dinner for yourself, and for someone you love. We are busy professionals and too busy to cook a lot of the time, I know. But cooking a proper meal, as my horrendously failed relationship from last winter reminded me, is the best gift we can give to ourselves and to one another. So book off some time (mark it on your calendar!) and go for it. Make the thing you most love in the world, and share it with somebody. Open wine, if that’s your thing, or open whatever your thing might be.

And then raise your glass to the struggles ahead. Remember that if you embrace the other humans around you, and fortify yourself, you can be ready for anything.


Three morsels and a question

Yesterday, some words of wisdom from teaching and learning scholar Phyllis Blumberg’s latest book crossed my virtual desk. They do that thing I really love the stuff that spams my inbox to do: they say a bunch of should-be-obvious things in ways that make me think about why they should be obvious, and why nevertheless they often are not, for many of us anyway. Whether you teach at the secondary school or college level, in private or public institutions, I suspect they will resonate. Here are my favourite three morsels, followed by a question for all of you related to the issues they raise.


First, Blumberg talks about learning “objectives” vs learning “outcomes”. I’m betting many of you, like me, have learned to tune these phrases out, rolling your eyes along the way. Yes, yes, we all have objectives and stuff! We know what we want the kids to learn already! As for these terms, they are just university biz-speak; they mean the same thing. Right?

Actually, no. Here’s Blumberg, helpfully, on the difference between “objectives” and “outcomes”:

Learning outcomes are the big picture, often complex goals that instructors expect students to achieve or learn by the end of the course.  They should be stated in terms of student performance, not what the instructor hopes to achieve, such as what content will be covered.  Learning outcomes are also called instructional goals (Diamond, 2008; Nilson, 2003).

Learning objectives are smaller units of learning that flow directly from the learning outcomes.  While a course may have about five larger learning outcomes, each learning outcome may have a few learning objectives associated with it.  For example, learning objectives may describe what students will learn from the discussion in a specific class. The literature often interchanges learning outcomes and learning objectives. In this book, I am referring to the larger learning outcomes.

I’ve realized, as I’ve thought about this over the last 24 hours, that while I have plenty of (let’s face it, stock) “outcomes” on my course outlines, I almost never take the time carefully to think them through, much less to link objectives to outcomes. Students will learn to write proper critical essays; students will write some critical essays in order to do that. Except –

Most concepts and tasks in higher education are complex, involving different component skills, cognitive processes, and many different facts.  To help students learn, instructors need to break down these complex concepts or tasks into their component parts, provide students opportunities to perform these skills or cognitive processes separately, and then allow them to practice the integrated tasks before assessing them. Instructors can point out the key aspects of the task so students know where to concentrate their efforts (Ambrose et al., 2010).

Jeez – duh! Except for the part where I’d never actually thought consciously about this cause-effect framework before. Thinking back to my course this past term on Shakespeare’s afterlives (QM Drama’s DRA 316: “Shakespeare After Shakespeare”), I considered the work we did in the weeks after spring break on building individual essay topics, then on creating essay-related presentations to solicit peer feedback, and then on the essays proper; I realised that the outcome I was aiming for was not “will learn to write proper critical essays” but rather “will learn to work methodically through all of the steps required in order to build independent areas of research interest, and will then apply that learning in the creation of a personal-interest-driven critical essay modelled on the kind of independent critical exploration characteristic of graduate school study”. I also realise that the objectives I employed were multifaceted: 1) will study and practice the process of developing independent research questions; 2) will learn how to shape research questions into essay topics; 3) will test the viability of research questions via peer feedback; 4) will learn to re-shape (sometimes reformulate completely) essay questions based on that feedback without panicking unduly; etc.

Why didn’t I think of this stuff, in this way, before? I think I know the reason (one of them, anyway).

Preparing course outlines during summer research time is (one) onerous, and (two) also works frequently only at the level of theory (because, let’s face it – it’s summer). I undertake this work mostly under duress, try to get it done pretty quickly, and rely on what I think will be “really cool” rather than (in some cases anyway) on what has worked well before. I tend to over-tweak existing formulas based on the elusive/imagined “really cool” factor, rather than letting the formula rest for another year or simply refining the outcomes/objectives a bit with the past year’s evidence fully in mind. Note that I always want to do the latter – I keep and annotate all my course evaluations for this purpose. I just don’t give it enough time or care, I think, because I don’t take the pedagogical logic behind the language of “outcomes/objectives” seriously enough when I’m also kind of hurrying through the task so I can get back to the book/article/conference paper/edition/whatever. In fact, as the above example from DRA 316 demonstrates, “outcomes/objectives” are absolutely central to the most interesting, and the most fun, work I do with students. If I forget about them come course-prep time, I risk losing all that productive fun, the legacy of previous work and the power of framing its value clearly for students in future.

And on that note, Blumberg offers me one more crucial morsel I want to share here.

The relationship between the difficulty of a course and student learning is curvilinear.  The best learning occurs when the course is perceived as difficult enough to be challenging, but still seen as achievable.  Under these circumstances, students are motivated to try.  If a course is too easy, students do not put forth any effort.  If the course is perceived as too difficult, students are not motivated to try because they think there is no way they will succeed (McKeachie, 2007).

I’m pretty sure we all aim for this, in theory, all the time. But many of us often don’t succeed. Why not? I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s because we haven’t built the logic of this statement into the “objectives/outcomes” framework that (if you’re like me) you’ve been busy dissing/ignoring/putting up with rather than taking fully on board as a pedagogical tool.

What, then, if every course you taught next semester featured as a stated outcome:

  • “Students will learn that being intellectually challenged can be a source of pleasure, a source of community, and a site of genuine personal growth!”

…followed by a bunch of complementary objectives? And what might some of those objectives be?

That’s the question. Please weigh in!




Sensible grammar advice – as in, you’ll want to give this to your students!

My last post, about grading strategies, included some comments on the time I spend helping students to get their heads around grammar errors they likely do not know they have made. When I flag a grammar problem in an essay, I typically do so because the larger problem, of which the grammar error forms a part, is that a sentence or paragraph just does not make sense.

I’m a language geek, so grammar stuff is interesting to me just because, but as a teacher I know that grammar can be scary and confusing for a lot of students who did not learn it in primary school and then were just expected to “know” it once they got to high school. (I learned this the hard way in my office one day when a young woman who had come to see me about problems in her paper asked me sheepishly: what’s a verb?)

For me, teaching grammar needs to be framed by common sense and by the goal of achieving clarity on the page, not by harping on rules. I also consider teaching good communication skills (including, importantly, proper grammar use) to students to be part of my pedagogical activism. Only once your point is clear can I understand it, and follow you toward your next insight; only if I can understand what you are saying or writing can we work together to get over the next logical hurdle, or past the next communication barrier. Clarity is about recognizing each other’s insights across the obstacles that human differences create; thus, clear and comprehensible speaking and writing (in whatever your language of shared communication happens to be) is a big part of making social and cultural change for the better in a multicultural, multi-social world.

Gleefully, then, did I read this superb article by Thomas Jones this past weekend in The Guardian (11 May 2013); he writes with common sense in mind about which grammar rules are useful (death to the dangling modifier!), and which can easily be chucked (split infinitives? Who cares?). Pass it on to your students; I plan to attach it to all feedback on first essays I hand back in the new semester.


Teaching theatre to students in Theatre: harder than you think!

I’ve been asked by my longtime friend, the poet K.I. Press, to contribute something to the Quip Blog at the CCWWP (Canadian Creative Writers and Writing Programs). A version of the post (possibly shorter than the one below) will be up soon here, and I will announce its publication and link again to the Quip Blog at that point. Meanwhile, though, the material I’ve written seems just right for this space, so I thought I’d preview it now.

For those of you already a bit familiar with my work as a teacher of performance to English students, quite a few of the details below won’t be a surprise; I’m reflecting on my strategies for using performance as a critical tool in the seminar and lecture-based classroom. What will sound new, though, is the writing component I’ve recently added to the work. I’ve already reflected a bit on the value of “critical moments” as teaching tools in a recent post, but there’s more here for those of you who were curious then about how the technique works in practice.

I’d welcome feedback on the exercise I outline below (as well as other elements of the post, of course!). My strategies are by no means perfect, and I’m all too aware of how easily they can ossify and lose their vibrancy.


Teaching theatre to students in Theatre: harder than you think!

When I got my first proper academic job almost 10 years ago, my main brief was to teach theatre to English Lit students in an official English Department. I expected this would be a huge challenge: there would be plenty of introverts, these introverts would be scared of the tasks that required them to make and show performance in class, and I’d get a lot of push-back from students who felt that dramas were like “novels” and their job was to read and analyse, not to think about performance as a public, even political, artistic practice. Lots of assumptions, in other words, but some of them did hold up. What surprised me, however, was how game my Lit students were to give performance a try – especially because I put no pressure on them to produce anything polished. No memorising lines. No elaborate sets or costumes. I emphasised that their “thought work” was the key to the performance exercises: get together with your assigned group, read the play you’re working on, select some scenes (or a strategy for mashing them up or re-writing them – all this was on the table), play with ideas about what you’d like to say about these scenes, and then get up on your feet and play some more. Be prepared, when the performance is over, to hold a Q&A with your peers, and to talk about your critical choices. That’s it.

In other words, I sold the performance exercises to my English Lit students as an embodied, practical form of academic critique. It worked. In fact, not only did it work: it produced some of the most stellar student performance I’ve ever seen, driven by strong critical thinking and an engaged, enthusiastic commitment to “poor” theatre.

Last year, I joined an esteemed Drama Department in the UK. I imagined that this shift would mean I’d have an easier time getting students on their feet, and this absolutely proved true. I also knew that, working with a student body accustomed to a variety of performance genres, including both traditional, script-based theatre and live and performance art, the presentations I could expect in class would be of very high quality. What worried me, however, was the challenge of getting my new theatre students to understand the nature of the performance tasks I assign in seminar settings: I’m not looking for polish, but for critical, academic, even political engagement with the texts we investigate. Could they resist the urge to spend their time making their performances look and sound “good”? Would they know, the way English Lit students are generally trained to do, how to apply a strong, analytical critique to the work they were engaging?

My first experience of this challenge, in a studio course on Shakespeare, proved some of my worries to be founded. I also realised, during that course, that I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted from my students: was I also looking for polish? Did I want them to focus exclusively on critical engagement, or was I tacitly assuming that they should be able to deliver both? Early on, this proved a muddle for me and difficult, I think, for the students; I decided to seek out some help in order to make things clearer and better.

I got in touch with one of my new colleagues at a program my school runs called “Thinking/Writing” (http://www.thinkingwriting.qmul.ac.uk). She helped me to parse the different kinds of tasks I was hoping to accomplish with my new students, and to articulate them clearly, and separately. I realised, via this process, that I needed to distinguish carefully between the kind of work I wanted my students to do when they were making a performance to share, and the kind of work I wanted my students to do when they were watching a shared performance. The two kinds of work would be related, but not the same.

My colleague and I designed an exercise template based on what she called “critical moments”. The students making performance would get a very similar brief to the ones my English Lit students receive: read your text, have a conversation about it, select EITHER a crucial scene, OR a crucial idea conveyed to you by the text, and explore it in performance, keeping the text’s possible social and political resonances in mind. The students in the audience, meanwhile, would get a different brief: when observing the performance, keep your eyes, ears, and other senses tuned to a “critical moment” that resonates especially for you. This might be a gesture, a series of gestures, a performance technique employed by one actor, a design choice, or even an “accident”. When the performance ends, record your critical moment, and then write about why it matters to you for just a few minutes. The writing part is key.

My teaching associate and I tested this exercise in two workshops we hosted with our first-year students last fall. It worked exceptionally well. In fact, it worked better than any performance event I’d ever held with students. (It also worked very well in my studio course, improving our group crits significantly.)

I realised after some reflection that the key to our success with this exercise was the combining of reading, performing, and writing – in other words, the crossing of modes and genre boundaries. By asking English Lit students to perform, I’d broken down some of their prejudices about what theatre is and is not, what it can and cannot do. In the same way, by inviting theatre students to blend reading, performance making, critical observation, and critical writing together, I’d managed to open the door to new insights about their chosen materials, and also to encourage them to take critical writing, as part of their work in and on theatre and performance, more seriously.

The experiment continues.

Deeply awesome advice on teaching students about critical thinking

I’ve belonged to the Tomorrow’s Professor listserv for a very long time. It’s an amazing resource, run by Rick Reis at Stanford, and its regular postings touch on matters relevant to university students and teachers at all points along their careers (from undergrads to senior administrators). The posts come twice weekly in term time; they are almost always good reads over lunch, but some are genuinely inspiring. These are the ones I save: I print them, I forward them to colleagues, and I place them in my current teaching folder, for use in the next set of classrooms.

Today’s post was one of those posts. It excerpts material from Stephen Brookfield’s 2012 book, Teaching for Critical Thinking: Tools and Techniques to Help Students Question Their Assumptions. You can read the entire post here; below, I quote my three favourite insights from the post, with thanks to Brookfield, and to Tomorrow’s Professor.

Brookfield’s principal claim in this excerpt is simple but startling: that teachers need to remember that students need to learn what critical reading, writing, and thinking actually mean before they can do those things. If you’re anything like me, you have internalized “critical thinking” as the raison d’être of the Humanities classroom, forgetting that there are actually a lot of incorrect assumptions and blatant misunderstandings about the very idea of what it means to be critical circulating in our popular culture. Brookfield intelligently frames, and rebuffs, those misunderstandings; here are my top three. (All text is from Brookfield; all boldface and italic emphases are my own.)

That It’s Negative:

For many of us the word critical carries negative connotations. Being critical is equated with cynical pessimism, with taking great pleasure in knocking down what other people have created; in short, with attacking and destroying what we portray as the naïve and shortsighted efforts of others. It is important to say from the outset, then, that critical reading is a process of appraisal, involving the recognition of positive as well as negative elements. In fact, using the words positive and negative is mistaken because it only serves to reinforce a false dichotomy that we have to reach a verdict that something is good or bad. What critical reading and writing are all about is assessing the accuracy and validity of a piece of work. This means that we will usually find aspects of research, philosophy, or theory that we dislike, disagree with, and find incomplete or overly narrow. But we will also find aspects that seem to us well described, recognizable, and informative. Few pieces of writing we read in a doctoral program will be so unequivocally wonderful or awful that we can adopt a film critic approach to its appraisal, giving it an intellectual thumbs up or thumbs down. If we are reading critically we will almost certainly find that our appraisals are multilayered, even contradictory (as in when the same passages both excite and disturb). But central to all critical reading is the acknowledgment of what we find to be well grounded, accurate, and meritorious in a piece of scholarly writing, as well as what we find wanting.

That It’s the Preserve of Politically Correct Left-Wingers:

…The point about critical reading, properly encouraged, is that critical questions are asked of all ideologies, disciplines, and theories. So a critical social science turns a skeptical eye on all claims to universal validity. For a teacher to mandate in advance—either explicitly or implicitly—that only one ideological interpretation or outcome is permitted in a discussion or assignment is to contradict a fundamental tenet of critical thinking. That tenet holds that all involved—including teachers—must always be open to reexamining the assumptions informing their ideological commitments. For teachers this imperative is particularly important, since one of the best ways in which they can teach critical thinking is for them to model the process in their own actions. I hope, personally, that a critical reading of texts results in students becoming more skeptical of conservative ideologies, and more aware of the inhumanity of monopoly capitalism. And I feel a duty to make my bias known. But I also must continually lay out my own assumptions, and the evidence for these, and invite students to point out omissions in my position and to suggest alternative interpretations that can be made of the evidence I cite. For me to decree that “proper” or “real” critical thinking occurs only when students end up mimicking my political views would be the pedagogic equivalent of papal infallibility. I would kill at the outset any chance for genuine, searching inquiry.  

That It’s Wholly Cognitive: (this one’s my favourite!)

Critical reading, like critical thinking, is often thought of as a purely intellectual process in which rationality is valued above all else. The concept of rationality figures so strongly in work of critical theoreticians such as Habermas that it’s not surprising to find it prominent in discussions of critical thinking and reading. However, critical reading as it is outlined here recognizes that thought and reasoning is infused with emotional currents and responses. Indeed, the feeling of connectedness to an idea, theory, or area of study that is so necessary to intellectual work is itself emotional. Even our appreciation of the intellectual elegance of a concept or set of theoretical propositions involves emotional elements.

So in critical reading we pay attention to our emotions, as well as our intellect. In particular, we investigate our emotional responses to the material we encounter. We can try to understand why it is that we become enthused or appalled, perplexed or engaged, by a piece of literature. As we read work that challenges some of our most deeply held assumptions, we are likely to experience strong feelings of anger and resentment against the writer or her ideas, feelings that are grounded in the sense of threat that this work holds for us. It is important that we know this in advance of our reading and try to understand that our emotional reactions are the inevitable accompaniment of undertaking any kind of intellectual inquiry that is really challenging.

I’ve decided that I’m going to use these insights next semester very directly – I’m going to share them with my students, and invite a conversation about them. (This conversation might take place on the same day that we talk about owning our intellectual space; let’s imagine it to be a meta-lesson, early in the term, on how to improve our classroom learning toolbox.)

And, on that note: if you’ve got specific strategies for helping students to understand critical thinking and to develop their CT skills, I’d love to hear them.

Best of wishes,