The Year That Was, 2016: What Happened When the Students Created the Supplementary Course Reader and Set Their Own Deadlines

Back in May 2015 I wrote three reflective posts about the academic year just passed: what worked, what didn’t, what I hoped to do differently in 2015-16. This year, instead of following that formula, I’ve decided to report on two of the changes I implemented. One went substantially better than I thought it might – though there’s room for improvement, as you’ll see – and the other kind of tanked, in a way I didn’t anticipate – though in hindsight I totally get it, and managed to salvage it nevertheless.

1. Students Create the Supplementary Course Reader

Last year, my teaching assistant for my 20th Century Theatre course, Madison Bettle, built an amazing tool for us all: a reader on our website designed to fill in some of the historical, cultural, and political gaps in student knowledge that we might not get to (or get to fully) in class. Labelled the “supplementary course reader”, Maddie’s tool was a hit with students, who reported using it constantly to prepare for class, essays, and exams. When she reflected on the reader’s popularity, however, she noted that it was a bit too one-way for her liking: it was content delivery online, which meant it also smacked of the kind of passive learning we both like to avoid. She suggested perhaps students ought to be involved in the reader’s creation, as well as its downloading, in future years, and I eagerly took up that suggestion.

This year, 20th Century Theatre began with a visit from Maddie, who explained the supplementary course reader’s construction and purpose to the new cohort; this information complemented the course reader assignment description I’d set out in the syllabus. Students were responsible for creating two course reader entries over the year, one per term; they could choose the weeks they would contribute, as well as the topics they’d write about, or they could suggest their own topics. Each contribution was worth 5%, and I purposefully designed the task so that it would be fairly easy for a committed but not necessarily gifted student to achieve 5/5. Students needed to tick 5 boxes, from being on time with their draft submission to me, to covering some basic content bases, to editing their draft in accordance with my suggestions and uploading their final draft to our website; they did not need to create something perfect, nor indeed essay-like. The purpose of the reader, I stressed, was to contribute to our shared understanding of the periods and cultures under discussion in class, not to make an argument or demonstrate exceptional grammar skills. Newsy posts were good; so were photos and videos, plus useful links in the Works Cited. It was fine to start with Wikipedia, but not a good idea to stop there. To assist students confused by this (admittedly somewhat unique) assignment, I created a model entry for the first week and talked us through it in class. I also made a point of drawing attention (in a good way) to the first couple of posts made by students in September.

[You can take a look at our crowd-sourced supplementary course reader here.]

The pros? My god, the students were on the ball about this. Maybe a quarter of the time did I have to remind them to get me drafts on the Monday afternoon before the week’s classes; once I’d done so they were immediately responsive, and of course by that point I’d already read and commented on the work submitted by students ahead of the game. I found it really important to vet the drafts; I hadn’t realised until the first wave of work came in that the draft editing stage was my opportunity to arrest any egregious mistakes that probably ought not to be published on the web. (Although the class’s WordPress site was designed not to be easily searchable by bots or trolls, it was nevertheless public.) At the same time, though, the students were clearly making valuable contributions to our collective knowledge as a class, and I also used my read of their first drafts to encourage them to augment ideas, both with text and with supporting images and videos.

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The cons are all down to me. In fact there’s really just one big con: I was so busy imagining this assignment and creating the scaffolding for students to contribute to the reader that I forgot entirely to think about how the reader could be used, actively, in class or toward future assignments. I often pointed at the week’s contributions in class, noting whenever possible links to our discussions or to my or my TA’s pocket lectures; I don’t think that was enough, however, and I felt at year’s end like all that great material was just sitting there on the website, underused. I did not – again, not really thinking enough about application! – ask the students on the mid-year survey how the course reader contributed to their weekly prep, nor did the stats WordPress offers give me enough information about who used the course reader page when. (Maddie’s reader was exceptionally well used because she was an instructor on the course; I’d really like to know to what extent students were willing to use one another’s work as authoritative. My guess is: less than I’d hope, more than I fear.)

So, while I’ll certainly keep this assignment for future iterations of the course, I’ll give a great deal more thought next time to how its materials will apply to student learning outcomes overall, and I’ll poll the students actively on how they use the course reader materials. I’ll probably also design a larger, capstone assignment for the course with the reader in mind.

2. Students Set Their Own Deadlines

Still in 20th Century Theatre, I decided to hand power to each student to decide when they/she/he would hand in the theatre review assignment, as well as the major research essay assignment. In the first case, we took two field trips to see shows in Toronto, one in November and one in January, and students had the option to review either show, handing in reviews the week after the field trip. In the second case, students were given a roster of dates to pick from in March and early April, and could hand in their research essays on any of the three, provided they selected their due date in advance. We chose dates together before Reading Week, when our research librarian Melanie Mills came to speak to the class about time management. The rule was that students could ask for “extensions” on their original deadlines up to and including the final suggested due date, as long as those extensions were requested before their chosen deadline rolled around. Plus, a bonus for anyone handing in on the first or second suggested date: feedback from both me and my TA Meghan, plus a chance to “do over” for a better grade.

I – VERY naively, clearly! – assumed students would take full responsibility for their learning as a result of this process, and hand stuff in according to the schedules they set for themselves. Students often complain to me that their stuff in my class is due the same week as everyone else’s class’s stuff; I figured if I gave them the option of picking their own due dates, and encouraged them to look at their schedules and think in advance about how to balance their assignments, they’d nail it AND stop complaining to boot.

Um. Ya. Yup. Right.

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It turns out students are way human, and procrastinate about their own self-imposed deadlines exactly as well as I do. Loads of them picked the first deadline; by the end, only two or three of 25 actually handed in that day. (Similarly, while everyone professed the best of intentions with the theatre review assignment, only two students reviewed the November performance.) They came to me shame-faced, asking if they could extend; true to my word, I granted them the extensions requested, and could only commiserate with them about how hard it is to stick to a deadline you impose on yourself. When the advantages are theoretical (I can party AFTER I hand in!) and the consequences limited… well, we all kind of suck at sticking to our word.

In the end, though, the abject failure of the set-your-own-deadline task was saved beautifully by a meta-assignment I attached to the research essay. Students were invited to keep a time management journal, writing at least four entries in it reflecting on how the preparation for their research essays was going (and on how they were doing at sticking to their deadlines). The return was golden: create a time-management plan (in class with me and Melanie at the start of the process), write the entries, and hand in with your research essay’s final draft, and you’d be rewarded with a bonus 5% on top of your essay mark, no strings attached.

To my surprise, students DID keep the journals. (Admittedly, I offered short bursts of time in class on occasion to write entries, guaranteeing a certain amount of buy-in.) And in keeping them, they took a surprising amount of time and space to reflect on what went wrong when they failed to keep to their originally chosen deadlines. The TM task, in other words, allowed students to confront their bad time management habits directly, and to think carefully about why they had not managed to take full advantage of the opportunity to set their own, more effective, deadlines for the research essay. While I would have liked to see students better use their time to begin with and hand in early for the do-over opportunity, I was really glad to read so many honest, forthright self-analyses, evidence that, at the very least, I got students thinking about how much their schedule chaos is down to their own making, rather than their profs’ tendencies to, you know, schedule final assignments at the end of term.

(Plus, it’s kind of a relief to know that your prof is also great at procrastinating, and is constantly working on that … I wasn’t shy about sharing this all-too-human reality with them, either.)

So I think I’ll use the choose-your-own-adventure deadline option again too – though this time primarily to watch students realise, along with me, how hard it is to work effectively within so much freedom. Something tells me that’s the best lesson to learn, and to learn early.

Kim

 

Studying performance makes you better! A former student’s view

The guest post below was written by one of our former students in the Theatre Studies program at Western; it was written as part of a showcase of work by Theatre Studies students published in Western News, our on-campus weekly, to celebrate the official launch of our program on 3 March 2016. You can read the other – equally thoughtful – student pieces here.

By Jonas Trottier

In a 2012 interview with Charlie Rose, Alan Rickman gave advice to aspiring young actors. He stressed the importance of exposing themselves to art, ideas, and current events in order for the young artist to form for themselves opinions on the world.

These are the things that I think have most benefited me in my journey as I’ve gone from undergraduate study at Western into a fine arts-based acting program at George Brown Theatre School in Toronto. The ideas that I was exposed to both in and out of the classroom as a student in Western’s Theatre Studies program have provided me with a broad intellectual foundation and a balanced, thoughtful perspective, both of which now inform my decisions as an actor and creator of theatre.

When I remember the political and social activism of my peers at Western, the creative, refreshing interpretations of texts on offer in scene studies for our classes, and the original performance interventions we made (here I think of the brave performances I witnessed at Purple Sex, a sex- and race-positive showcase that happens each March on campus), it is abundantly clear to me that all of those things have helped shaped my view of the world.

They have helped me to see and understand the world from the perspective of those on the margins.

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(Purple Sex is a student-driven, feminist, critical race, and queer-positive performance fundraiser that takes place every year at Western.)

Having this kind of exposure to alternative ideas, identities, and experiences of the world, and being able to see things from perspectives which may be very different from my own, is indispensable to my work as an actor. Empathy is the actor’s greatest tool. Without it, it is impossible to look at a script and see not simply how a character must act but also the incredible range of truthful ways in which they might act. To be able to see these possibilities and weigh them against each other in order to make choices that will create the most compelling piece of theatre is what sets great actors apart from those who lack the means to make these analytical choices.

In addition to this exposure to different worldviews, I benefitted so much at Western from learning about a wide array of theatrical conventions that stand apart from contemporary stage naturalism (the most common convention on display in mainstream theatre in North America). This has helped me to keep an open mind about the form theatre can take, and what different kinds of forms mean on stage. From the techniques of Brecht’s Epic Theatre to more esoteric forms such as Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, having a knowledge of a range of historical and contemporary techniques allows me to make good choices about which form or technique can most effectively help me achieve the desired effect for a piece of my work.

In looking back on my time at Western and thinking about where I am now in my journey, as well as where the Theatre Studies program at Western is going, I experience an interesting feeling of internal conflict. While I am infinitely happy to be doing the work I am doing now, a small part of me wishes I had had the opportunity to spend more time at Western and further my academic exploration of theatre and performance by taking some of the program’s ever expanding offerings. For now, I’ll continue to immerse myself in the practical side of the theatre, and just maybe use a book list or two, borrowed from my teachers and peers still at Western, to guide my ongoing personal investigations.

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JONAS TROTTIER graduated from Western in 2015 with a minor in Theatre Studies and is currently studying Theatre Performance at George Brown Theatre School in Toronto.

 

Theatre as Voice (a guest blog by Emily Jones)

One of my long-term hopes for this blog is that it may become a forum space for students as well as teachers of all stripes to reflect on the places where teaching, learning, theatre and activism cross over, and on what the results of those crossings-over may be. Below, and with her permission, I’m reblogging a recent post by Emily Jones, a third year student in theatre and performance at Lancaster University; here, Emily reflects on her experience as part of Lancaster’s V-Day labour, and in particular its production of The Vagina Monologues. Emily writes thoughtfully, openly, and with commitment about the challenging work of supporting her peers, and learning from them, as V-Day opens up difficult terrain for participants and spectators alike. Thank you, Emily!

Drama Queens Review

This is a guest post by Emily Jones, a third year Theatre student at Lancaster. Emily originally wrote this for a half-day Gender and Women’s Studies seminar which I co- organised with a colleague Anne Cronin (from Sociology) entitled ‘Is the Personal Still Political?: Young Women and Sexualisation’.

The impetus for this seminar was our alarm at evidence of the growth of ‘lad’ culture on University campuses across the country and this event included a brilliant presentation based on their research into this phenomenon at Lancaster by first year Gender and Women’s Studies students. Other papers were given by postgraduates and lectures on the topic of ‘laddism’ more broadly but also on femininity, queer identities and on the need to educate young women about their sexuality in positive terms.

While some of the stories and evidence that emerged from this event were alarming, it felt positive, productive and considering the…

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On failure

The teaching term at my school ended last Thursday afternoon, and since then I’ve been reflecting a great deal on the power of failure.

End of term is the time when students rush headlong into final essay writing and exam preparation, so their anxiety about grades yet to come is at an all-term high; meanwhile, they are eating too little and drinking too much, needing far more care than we can (or even should) offer. At this time of year we are all – professors and non-academic staff very much included – profoundly exhausted, and not sure we can make it home on the rush-hour subway one more time, let alone through the next few weeks of testing, grading, celebrating, crying, and appealing poor marks. In many ways the end of March is a time of flagging energy and failing spirits all round.

This year, however, end of term also heralds Passover and Easter celebrations, and I find this a valuable time to think more, and more broadly and deeply, about the social power of failure and loss. In this weekend’s Guardian, columnist Giles Fraser – Priest-in-charge at St. Mary’s Newington, near my own home in South London – reminded me of how difficult, how ambivalent even, this time of liturgical celebration can be for Christians (and, I’d wager, for Jews too). Dr Fraser reflects on the human value of ambivalence over conflicting emotions; in relation to Christian ambivalence over the death of Jesus Christ, he writes,

“…ambivalence is survivable. Ambivalence is the experience of having contradictory feelings about the same thing, in particular the presence of both love and hate. Understandably, the conjunction of these emotional reactions feels highly unstable. If you love you do not hate. If you hate you do not love. That is the commonsense position. The one seems to cancel out the other. Yet even (perhaps especially) in our most intimate relationships, both are present.”

“Ambivalence is survivable”: more than that, it’s completely normal. It’s an exceptionally human experience. And it can be a source of powerful self-reflection. To feel neither good nor bad (nor properly indifferent): that’s a hard thing to imagine. To feel lost; to feel loss. Perhaps our fear of the ambivalent emerges partly from an anxiety over those things that are not-quite-imaginable; those things – like loss – that lie outside our immediate control.

Dr Fraser’s words got me thinking in fresh ways about failure, a word we typically associate with catastrophe, but which I’d like to reframe here as something that creates – that at its best, should create – a useful ambivalence.

I’m a type-A, succeed-at-everything kind of person. For me, the catastrophe of failure generates a fight-or-flight response: to survive the moment of the fail, I (or my loved ones, acting in support) imagine risings-up-out-of-the-ashes, fresh starts and better-luck-next-times, the (near-immediate) promise that everything is going to be ok and you’re going to get through this and next time you’re going to get that A+. Failure throws me into a tailspin: the astonishing sinking in the gut, the sense of being toppled off balance, the power that swell of feeling produces to make my vision blur. What I want, more than anything, in the moment I recognise my own failure is to get back to neutral, to wipe away the memory of the fail through which I’m still living, to conquer the feeling of loss and the attendant anxiety that I’m still fighting.

There’s nothing new in thinking about failure as a potentially productive experience; fretting about (the failure of) failure is a kind of meme these days (for an excellent example, see Jessica Lahey’s recent “Why Parents Need to Let Their Children Fail” at The Atlantic, the latest in a string of articles about the significant potential for harm in ‘helicopter parenting’). Plenty of studies now indicate how important failure (plus strong support in the face of failure) is to students’ learning and psychological growth.

I am in broad agreement with this literature, but I’m talking about something else here. Yes, we need to allow our students to fail. But more than that: we need to teach them to live in the moment of failure – not to rush away from it, not to seek immediately to bury the fail, nor at all costs to re-exert the control (over their terms, their plans, their futures) that failure has seemingly wrenched away. There will be time to recover from this loss. I believe we need to encourage our students, first and foremost, to live with the loss failure brings, to navigate it, to experience their world as doubled over, undone, uncertain for a period of time. This is, for me, a terrifying but essential part of becoming a thoughtful citizen and an empathetic human being.

I’ve always been afraid to fail my students, even when failure is plainly warranted: the result of failing a student is, more often than not, a panicked or angry email, phone call, or office visit, played in an accusatory key: why did you give me this grade? Why did you do this to me? (I’ll bracket for now the possibility that this visit will be made by a parent; luckily, I’ve not had this experience first hand.) I don’t like confrontation (this is related to my fear of failure, of course); I don’t want to have to navigate my students’ trauma, and I don’t want to face the possibility that I too have somehow failed them. My fear of failing has translated neatly into a fear to fail. And in this fear, I’ve lately discovered, I rob us both – me and my students – of a crucial learning experience.

Two weeks ago, I received one of those panicked emails from a very bright student who had received a bare pass (a D-) on her major paper for a class from last term; she passed only because the paper, within its almost incomprehensible prose and thoroughly muddled structure, showed real promise, the strong thinking of which I knew she was capable. The email made me angry: I had not failed her, as she claimed; she had failed herself. I steeled myself to meet with her, feeling knotted and anxious as the hour before her visit ticked down. I prayed she’d simply not come. When she did, however, she surprised me utterly. She had spent the time before our meeting re-reading her paper, and could now understand some of my comments. We talked openly and generously about where her weaknesses lay – in grammar and punctuation; in planning her essays; in organising her time – and we began to make a plan to get her some help at the library. Most significantly for me, we reflected, as author and reader rather than simply as student and teacher, about why the essay had not accomplished its goals, and we talked frankly about the feedback I had offered her: where it was clear, and where it was not. To my astonishment, I realised that I had assumed my typed comments were crystal clear, yet sitting with this student I could plainly see that they were vague and baffling to her in places. Together, we reflected on both of our failures: hers to translate her exciting thinking onto the page, and mine to explain the problems in her essay cogently and comprehensively. We sat for half an hour in the moment of failure, thinking and talking about what it meant to understand the experience of not doing well both from our own and from another person’s point of view. I learned a lot, and I felt stronger and lighter after the student left my office.

A few days later, another student reminded me of the importance of living with precariousness. We had been talking about Judith Butler’s Precarious Life (2004) in the seminar in which I taught her, and I’d referenced Butler’s fellow-travellers, the continental philosophers Giorgio Agamben and Emmanuel Lévinas. Each of these thinkers takes me back to Dr Fraser’s remarks, and to the ethical importance of embracing, even if just for a moment, the ambivalence that follows the moment of panic provoked by failure. So: let us not simply “allow” our children to fail, “allow” ourselves to fail our students; let us teach one another what it means to experience failure as a kind of teaching, as a way into the worlds of the others to whom our failure is attached. Can I recognise myself as not perfect, as not even good enough sometimes? Can I understand how my not-good-enough might reverberate for those around me – those depending on me? Can I reflect on my failure as both a loss, now, and a potential future gain?

Very best to all,

Kim