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.


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.


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.



Guest post: Assessing Assessment

By Michelle Liu Carriger

Full disclosure: I think grades are dumb. I love teaching in the humanities and I think my work is important, but I hate grading: it makes me feel sad and stressed, it makes students sad and stressed, I find myself resenting them for not doing better work and “making me” deduct points and all that undercuts what I try to do as an educator. But that said, I also recognise that it’s a bit lofty to think my students are going to be totally on board with pie in the sky learning-for-learning’s-sake and being a better human and all that. I understand that for them university is also a means to ends which will not value searingly insightful articulations of gender and race in MTV’s reality show 16 and Pregnant or promising nascent playscripts the way I do. So grades are one way of translating the work that students do as university students into a currency that is supposed to “buy” them something else later, like a job. The part that bothers me about grades, though, is what exactly goes into making that grade in the first place: it often doesn’t feel to me at all that the things I actually wanted to instill in the students constituted the substance of the grade. That is, as an educator, I think of the grade as but an index of the real course material, but for many students it’s the grade itself, something I think of as only a label or indicator, which takes on the value that I attribute to the material. (Now that I’ve ventured into the realm of money theory, it seems a short step to suggest that this is a sort of commodity fetishism of the grade, and the gold standard is NOT in effect here: too often, I feel that the grade conferred is “empty”. It’s not guaranteed by a substance of “real” value.)

Now, because of a grade’s exchange value, I don’t think that students are entirely wrong to value grades, even though I’ve often bemoaned their obsessions as misplaced. But for we educators who believe that critical reasoning skills, writing skills, and the other educational aims of our classes are just as transferable and valuable as grades (and preferably more so), then we need to find ways of hauling our goals into line with grading practices. One of the goals I often have trouble achieving under the aegis of letter grades is that of valuing student process and effort over virtuosity. While of course I appreciate students with native (or well-honed) abilities in critical thinking, discussion, and writing, I believe that it’s more important, even amongst students with strong abilities, to cultivate methods of engagement, on the understanding that while the “content” of any given humanities module may be more or less relevant to students, the skills of critical thinking, reading, and writing are definitely transferable.

Recently my convictions about the importance of emphasising process and effort have been underscored while reading the work of psychologist Carol Dweck. Dweck’s primary psychological theory is on “fixed” and “growth” mindsets. As summarised by Maria Popova in a blog post on Dweck’s mass market book, Mindset:

A “fixed mindset” assumes that our character, intelligence, and creative ability are static givens which we can’t change in any meaningful way, and success is the affirmation of that inherent intelligence, an assessment of how those givens measure up against an equally fixed standard; striving for success and avoiding failure at all costs become a way of maintaining the sense of being smart or skilled. A “growth mindset,” on the other hand, thrives on challenge and sees failure not as evidence of unintelligence but as a heartening springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities. Out of these two mindsets, which we manifest from a very early age, springs a great deal of our behavior, our relationship with success and failure in both professional and personal contexts, and ultimately our capacity for happiness.

Dweck’s research provides additional reasoning for why we should encourage process over achievement: because summative assessments do not provide impetus toward more effort, they tend to function as endpoints instead of stepping stones to improved effort. As teachers, we can help to encourage growth mindsets in our students by emphasising the ways in which assessment serves as a diagnostic for what they can continue working on, rather than as an indication of their intelligence or talent. We should encourage students to think of assessment as diagnostic in part of an ongoing process of learning and skill acquisition, not as a final declaration of an area completed or a box to tick with a rating of quality like a cut of meat.


(The author, amidst the marking)

My position at Queen Mary University of London as a Lecturer in Drama is my first full time academic position post-PhD and the first time I’ve worked within the UK educational system; I was born and bred to the US system, where I’ve been through small liberal arts schools, a big land grant university, and elite private theatre and humanities departments. At first, things seem pretty similar at QM to what I’ve known in the US – it was just that everything had a different name: students take modules (courses) appropriate to their course (major); they get marks (grades) on an A to F scale, except that Britain leaves a full 20+ points for mythical geniuses who surely never appear at the undergraduate level. By which I mean: the American A of 90-to-100 is equivalent to the UK 70-to-100, the reality being that apparently until recently virtually no one ever got more than 72, maybe 75 at the outside.

One thing that the culture shock of a new system has revealed to me is how I might have been using the “grade inflation” I experienced at Brown and CU Boulder as a means of secretly moving toward a credit/no credit type of grading. At Brown I loved the courses that were deemed credit/not credit, like playwriting and speech. However, I also recognise that my own grade inflation probably only assuages my own marking discomfort and does not actually help students value the skills and content I want them to value.

Last semester at QM I convened a practical module on playwriting and I found that my students were just as nonplussed and anxious as I was about how their plays would be graded. Although I would expect my third year students to be more comfortable with the QM/UK system than I was at that point, I soon discovered that many were still trying to figure out the school’s “formula”, like a good grade recipe to follow in order to come out with a “first” (an A) instead of a good play. They read the assignment guidelines for loopholes like lawyers. When we discussed Roland Barthes’ essay “The Death of the Author” in class, the first comment posed was: “But now I’m wondering, how are you going to mark our plays?” The class’s endless fretting and the insufficiency of my constant reply to “write the best play you can” pushed me to desperation as I tried to figure out how to embolden them to experiment and write their most creative, brave, and best work.

The problem with using letter grades at all is that clarity of standards is necessary in making the assessment practice useful for the student; without knowledge of what will constitute a “good” grade, the student has no idea what to work toward. While this is difficult to explain when we’re dealing with the qualitative work (such as critical writing and reasoning) typical of the humanities, the standards become even more vague when venturing into the subjective territory of art and creative expression. By no means did I want plays calculated toward what students believed I would like, nor actually do I believe that all good plays are written to the same standards in a few short weeks (the time allotted for the assignment at the end of the term). For all these reasons, I sought to shift the class’s understanding of the assessment goals away from “quality” and toward “effort” and method. I believe that solid and steady effort, thoroughness, and thoughtfulness first of all are the proper goals of growth-mindset based pedagogy, are easier to mark, and, finally and by no means least, I believe that they lead to higher quality work in the end.

All along I encouraged the students to attend to these goals and reminded them to use the 2000-word accompanying rationale to explain the kinds of labor and method that went into their creative work. But near the end of the semester, when we were still having long discussions in class in which I attempted to instill the confidence they continued to lack, I finally came to terms with the fact that in this case I was not going to turn out to be the teacher who magically inspires her class to forget about grades and just do what they love. So I came up with a new idea. I decided to add a requirement to their final projects in which they would write their own criteria for the marking of their individual assignments, in order to provide concrete goals for their work without me having to dictate what “a good play” consisted of. I implemented this plan by first holding a discussion in which I asked the class to name the things by which they judged a performance text “good.” These included features like “cohesive worlds of the play,” “strong, distinctive dialogue,” “arresting images.” Then I asked what they thought appropriate outcomes of the module would be. Their answers included “engagement with the assigned texts” and “establishment of a personal methodology.” At the conclusion of this discussion, I assigned them each to write their own set of 5 to 7 criteria for their final projects, with at least three pertaining to writing a script and at least two demonstrating mastery of the module goals; they could then choose to adapt any of the things we had discussed or come up with their own criteria for the final document, which they had to send to me by the end of the semester. I in turn replied to each student with feedback, sometimes asking them to edit a criterium if it was not concrete enough for me to use.

What did I hope this change achieved? I hope it brought into line the highly individual circumstances of writing a play and the motivating effects of letter grades while alleviating the uncertainties of what makes good work and of what students were “allowed” to do. More importantly, I hope that this experiment helped give the students a greater sense of autonomy in their work in general, pushing them to define for themselves what it is they wanted to achieve and therefore investing the grades they ultimately did achieve with a little more substance. In general, the criteria assignment was received well, although I think if it had come earlier in the semester it could have headed off much more of the lingering anxiety that remained visible on my module evaluations, filed in the last week of class. More than one student told me, when I met with them individually about their projects in the last week before they were due, that they had grown to appreciate some of the changes I had implemented over the Christmas break, once they had had the chance to get really deeply into their individual projects. I’m eager to try this strategy again in a more systematic way, integrating it from the beginning of the module, and perhaps in more “traditional” classes, too, to see if such a procedure can improve students’ agency and engagement with learning. It’s not a big change; it feels more like a hack or a patch slapped onto the typical mode of grading. But I hope that I’ve managed to sneak a little more worthwhile learning gold into the grade commodity.

I’d love to hear from others about strategies you’ve used for focusing on process in class, or about strategies for making grades feel more substantial.


Michelle Liu Carriger is Lecturer in Drama, Theatre, and Performance Studies at Queen Mary University of London where she is at work on a book project tentatively entitled “Theatricality of the Closet” on the historiography of the performance of everyday, through looking at clothing controversies in 19th century Britain and Japan. Meanwhile, she’s contemplating book two, on performance and the Japanese Way of Tea (tea ceremony) which she has been practicing for the last fifteen years, including one year in Kyoto Japan in a traditional arts training program. She holds a PhD in Theatre and Performance Studies from Brown University where she taught fashion and performance, speech, and devised collaborative work with Elise Morrison and Molly Flynn under the moniker Cabaret Murderess.

How the hell do I structure my essay properly? (A holiday story)

It’s the first day of the week after Christmas, which here in the UK, for Queen Mary Drama students anyway, means it’s the day to turn one’s attention full-time back to writing the essays due in January. I’ve had a steady stream of queries today, ranging from slightly worried to totally panicked. The most interesting one, however, came from a second-year student who wrote to ask me for some practical, general advice; she noted that she’d been getting feedback consistently faulting her essay structure, and that her confidence was dropping. Did I have some recommendations for her that could help?

Some of you might be rolling your eyes: we’re not writing instructors, right? University teachers, unless we teach writing, don’t technically teach writing. We teach subject areas; students are expected to develop their writing skills on their own (or to have them already). But they don’t, mostly because writing well is HARD, people, and learning to write well is frankly baffling (I remember how baffling – any good researcher/writer who tells you the skills came easy is lying). We all need to share tips with one another, throughout our careers, and I think we should share them more often with our students, because they needs those tips, and also because the epidemic of people in positions of power in the culture at large who have very poor written communication skills is growing at an alarming pace.

I am reminded constantly of how important good writing skills are to acts of activism, and to our current dearth of effective activism. (Yes, even accounting for Occupy, we’re not protesting nearly as much as we used to, and we’re not being heard nearly as often. Ask a union organiser if you don’t believe me. only kind of counts.) How many times have we complained that the media dumb down complex ideas in the neoliberal public sphere, leaving thoughtful politicians scrambling to make their cases for action heard above the din of “lower taxes! Too many immigrants!”? Every Rob Ford shouting “stop the gravy train!” not only clouds the airwaves with ridiculously oversimplified non-arguments (“stop the gravy train” is not an argument; it’s a sloppy but annoyingly catchy catch phrase designed to stifle argument). S/he also lowers the bar, making it that much harder for people who’d like to help the public understand, say, where our municipal tax dollars actually go, why public transit is really expensive but remarkably necessary, and why municipal issues in a large city like Toronto are rarely simple in any way. In order for the latter voices to get better hearing in what currently passes for our public sphere a number of things need to happen, but I’d argue that one of those things must be a broader appreciation for how to build, and read, and make sense of complex arguments in all sorts of venues.

So, festive season and all, here’s a version for all of you of the email I wrote to my student in reply to her useful query about how she might learn to structure her academic essays more effectively. I drew these “top tips” from my own experience learning (over and over again, at different stages in my career) how to write better, more clearly, with more nuance and with more precision. But they’re just mine. I’d love to hear yours – please do hit reply – and feel free to quibble with anything below that you think doesn’t ring true.

Happy new year!



1. Figure out what you actually want to argue. It may be a version of what you first thought you were going to argue, but very likely it’s not the same as that first thought. It’s probably a bit more complicated now, and this is where students often get tripped up. As you mull over your essay plans your ideas evolve, but with that evolution can come fear that your ideas are somehow “getting away” from you. Don’t let this cause you panic! Instead, embrace the evolution. Take the time to wander around your room/flat/kitchen, talking your ideas out to yourself or with friends or flatmates or parents. When you “hit” what “it” is you’re trying to say, write it down. Don’t skip this step. In fact, probably you’ll want to do this series of things (think/talk/wander/write) a bunch of times, and that’s fine – remember that your ideas are getting more complicated, which means multi-dimensional. There are more than one or even two ways to say what you’re saying, and you’ll need those multiple phrasings as you work through your paper later.

2. When you think you’ve got “it”, work out a draft introduction to give it some body. Make sure you are as clear as possible in your introduction about the “it” you’ve worked out as your argument: in other words, don’t be afraid to say exactly what you mean to argue BEFORE you start arguing it. Don’t worry that you’re spoiling some kind of surprise – just spit it out! This is the best thing you can do in the introduction, and in fact everywhere in your essay – be very, very clear about the argument to come and your essay’s larger goals. My friend Joanne Tompkins calls this “signposting”; she taught me to signpost when she helped me create what later became my first published journal article, and I’ll always be grateful.

3. Next, go back to some planning. How are you going to support your argument? What things do you want to highlight as evidence? Plot the argument for yourself, in the way that works best for you to be sure, but DO plot it out. What will go in each paragraph – stick to the key points here, no more at this stage – and (this is important) how will the paragraphs feed into each other? Plot these transitions out in the way you like best – using text, visuals, string, anything. But do plot them. Plotting really, really works, especially when you’re learning.

4. Draft the rest of the paper. After you’ve finished each paragraph, go back to your list of “it” phrases. See if there is a connection between what you’ve been arguing in the paragraph and “it”. If there is, make sure it’s clearly marked. If there’s not a connection, figure out why not (and if there should be one – sometimes the answer to this is no, but usually it’s yes). Edit as appropriate.

5. Finally, after you’ve drafted the paper, put it away for a day and then read it again (or, ask a friend to read it). After you’ve read it, answer this question: what is the paper now, in this state, ACTUALLY arguing? Is it the thing you believe you were trying to say? Or is the paper veering off track in places and trying to say something more, or something new? If it is, ask yourself one more question: is that because you haven’t argued your case fully enough, with enough evidence, or is it because you’re in fact trying to make the point that’s coming out in the tangents rather than in your introduction? Either way, chances are you’ll need a solid edit at this stage. That means another full day of work, most likely, so make sure you’ve saved time for it! As you revise, have your “it” phrases to hand, and be careful you’re not letting your edits take the paper off track. By the same token, if you think the tangents you’ve found in your paper are serious enough to warrant a re-write, with a new argument and a new, improved introduction, well, get busy. We’ve all been there, and rarely do we regret the re-writing.

AND: before you do anything, take a look at this:

A shout-out to this term’s activist learners

We’ve just completed our autumn semester at Queen Mary; this year, term ended for me with the final seminar in my first-year module, “Performance Texts”. This is a compulsory course for any single-honours Drama student at QM; this year, I had nearly 50 students, taught separately and together by me and three very able teaching associates across four seminar groups.

I hadn’t taught first year students in more than a decade before coming to Queen Mary, and I have been totally surprised by what a pleasure it can be to work with engaged and enthusiastic beginners. Performance Texts is, in every way, a building-block course: we teach the basics of what it means to understand plays, scripts, live performance, film – you name it, as long as “it” bears a relation to the act of public performance – as “texts” to be read, analysed, and explored critically. Thus, the course functions as an intellectual starting point for all future QM Drama seminars. And because I, like so many of my peers at Queen Mary, am a firm believer in the socially and politically activist dimensions of performance, the course is designed to help students understand performance texts as social and political documents geared toward our collective betterment. Can performance have public impact? we ask. What kind? Can it change minds? Change government policy? Change anything for longer than two hours at a time? For me, live performance is charged with activist potential but its realisation is never a given; in a class like Performance Texts we talk about that potential, what its realisation might or might not look like, and what performance’s limitations as an activist practice might be.

So what did the students and I do this year? We defined our terms – mapping the many things that “activism” can mean, arguing over the difference between “subtle” and “overt” acts of intervention, delineating the many different kinds of “texts” we encountered together and what kinds of skills “reading” each such text might require.


We explored the collaboratively devised, apartheid-era South African play The Island first as a published script, then as a source for some exciting, provocative student scene-studies, and finally as a professional production, which we attended all together at the Young Vic on London’s South Bank. We struggled with Shakespeare’s language. We engaged in heated debate over the relative merits of Julie Taymor’s wacky, carnivalesque, pastiche film version of Titus AndronicusWe talked about ethics. We confronted ideas most people don’t want to talk about. We made countless scratch performances, did a lot of group work and plenty of independent free writing. We shared some impressive thought work, in seminar and on stage. And we stayed late – a lot.

Thinking back over the semester with my small seminar cohort of 13 students, I can’t get over how fully and completely engaged we were, every Friday morning at 10am! Far from being archetypal representatives of the “me” generation, this clutch of learners came prepared to think, to feel, to test new ideas, to write, to read, to expose their vulnerabilities, to make stuff, and to get messy when necessary. We didn’t all agree on what “activism” at the theatre might mean, just as our politics didn’t always agree – but we were all prepared, sooner or later, to take a risk and go out on a limb with an idea. That’s not something I see all that often in the classroom, and it’s not something I ever expected to get from first-year students, whom I imagined, before coming to teach them, as closed-off and fearful rather than bold, open and forceful. Terrified they probably were – but they were bold and forceful too, and found the courage, again and again, to open themselves to the course and its challenges.

As a thanks to my students – Jodie, Wizzy, Anu, Ema, Alex, Josh, Olivia, Martha, Will, Connal, Aqua, Rhys, and Shafiq – I’ve made two lists: of what they taught me this semester, and of what I hope for them in the semesters to come.

What Kim Learned… from the gang in Performance Texts (Autumn 2013)

  1. Making is a kind of reading. As Olivia put it so well during our last class, we learn so much from exploring a text physically, devising a performance of it, and then looking back at it through the eyes of an audience of peers. Could it be that the most important work we do in an “activist” classroom (whether that classroom is focused on “performance” or not) amounts to a series of shared makings, through which we watch one another unpack an idea and then reflect back what we see? This is a kind of risky, responsive, dynamic reading: it requires each of us to be vulnerable and receptive to the gazes of others as they look critically at what we have made, and how and why we have made it. But how much might we each take from that experience of reading our own intentions, prejudices, and insights through others’ eyes!
  2. Small, “simple” books can have a big, valuable impact. This year my colleagues and I encountered difficulties in making our course reading packages at the end of the summer; as a result, I dispensed with the idea of a reading pack for Performance Texts and simply asked the students to buy three books from the student-friendly Theatre& series, published by Palgrave. The books are roughly the length of a long essay (60-70 smallish, large-typeface pages), and although they are designed as beginners’ texts, for some reason I’ve always thought they could not, should not be an end in themselves even in a first-year classroom. Last year I assigned two of them, but I also assigned some heavy-duty scholarly essays besides; surely to demonstrate my strengths as a teacher (not to mention my Big Brain as a researcher) I should also include some Derrida and Deleuze for good measure, right? This year I defied that gnawing fear that sticking to the “beginner” texts would mark some kind of pedagogical (or intellectual!) failure on my part, and I’m glad I did. Thanks to Connal and Ema in particular for reminding me, in the last couple of weeks of the term, how useful these small books, with their clear histories and helpful bibliographies, can be.
  3. Sometimes there’s a good reason to eat a dead baby. We studied Sarah Kane’s controversial first play, Blasted, in the penultimate weeks of the semester, and as part of that work we had to confront the freight of putting extreme acts of violence against others on stage. During our wide-ranging discussions, Martha made the very good point that there is often a logical, understandable reason for an extreme act – we just need to imagine that reason in order to gain access to some empathy for the perpetrator. Further, she reminded us that finding the will to imagine in that way – taking the risk to think against the popular grain, to feel for the person against whom others have lined up in hate and disgust – can be one of the hardest things anyone may do in a life. Indeed, such imagining may be the very definition of an “act” of activism.

What Kim hopes for the gang in return…

  1. That you will keep taking exactly such risks: in performance, sure, but also in your thinking and reading and writing and being. Try out new ideas, especially now; the stakes, until you reach final year, are comparatively low.
  2. That you will fail at something, and get up again. Think of those low stakes as a kind of freedom to fail brilliantly; that is, to fail because it went wrong and you learned something from it, not because you didn’t try. Active failing (activist failing?) is how we learn best. (Really: read this.)
  3. That you will not fear your grades. I’d be lying if I told you that you can ignore them; you can’t. (I certainly couldn’t – oh boy, how I couldn’t.) But when you look back on your university years, you’ll likely not be able to remember what mark you scored in each class. You will remember exhilaration, moments of revelation, moments when you made a hard choice and something unexpected and amazing happened. When you learned, hit the nail on the head, grew two inches taller. Try, just once, to forget about the tick-boxes. Work for those other moments instead.

With thanks to each one of you,


PS: watch this space in the weeks to come for guest posts from the rest of the Performance Texts teaching team.

Raise the bar; lower the stakes

How’s that for a fine contradiction! Like many teachers, I complain about students not caring enough, not understanding the value of basic things like preparing for class, not necessarily even understanding the importance of showing up for class. So why would I want to lower the stakes, make stuff seem less important? Precisely because high stakes are stressful, and lots of stress isn’t conducive to great teaching and learning.

This is the message I got from reading Tomorrow’s Professor post #1271, “Designing College More Like a Video Game – Motivating Change with High Standards and Low Stakes” by José Antonio Bowen. (The excerpt is from chapter four of Bowen’s 2012 book, Teaching Naked.) Citing evidence from Arum and Roksa (2011) and Bain (2004), Bowen writes:

The best teachers focus on challenging students in a supportive environment where failure is tolerated. The combination is essential; just having high standards is not enough to help students learn. Bain discovers repeatedly that the best teachers expect more of their students yet treat them with genuine caring and give them a sense of control. Students learn best when they believe that the professor wants them to succeed.

There’s more than one key detail here. First, Bowen argues that failure needs to be made part of a classroom’s set of expectations: when we fail we learn (as I’ve argued, anecdotally, before on this blog), but most students (me included!) reach high school or university age conditioned to fear failure rather than to recognize it as an essential component of their learning practice. So working with failure is one key tactic for raising the bar by lowering the stakes. Second, Bowen argues, via Bain, for demanding, challenging classrooms (“high standards”), in which teachers expect a lot from their students – including that trying to meet challenges means inevitable (and essential) failure somewhere along the way. Bowen then makes a bit of a cognitive leap, seemingly equating student failure with teacherly support to produce his last claim, that “students learn best when they believe that the professor wants them to succeed”. I think what he’s actually trying to do here is communicate an equation for the ideal high-bar, low-stakes classroom: challenging students + expecting and supporting students through failure = a better rate of student success, both in real-time learning and in learning how to learn for all time.

I really like Bowen’s argument (and it’s much more extensive than the part I’ve just summarized; check it out in full here). In theory it makes perfect sense: demand a lot, encourage experimentation and risk-taking, and remind students that risk will be rewarded, as long as it is genuinely interrogatory, curiosity- and research-driven, regardless of outcome. This means changing what students understand “success” and “failure” to mean – effectively, shaking these terms loose from their binary relationship. But how to do this in real life? Bowen argues that “Practically, our ability to lower the risk of failure while maintaining high standards means we have to rethink what and how we assess”: that might mean creating more assessments worth fewer marks each, creating do-over opportunities, or building a learning-from-failure component into the marking of an experiment, an essay, or a group performance.

I have favoured the do-over option in the past; for a while now, I’ve been working on different kinds of do-over essay assignments, and my current favourite goes like this: students are given the option of handing work in on a preliminary due date, receiving feedback and a grade from me, and then getting the chance to improve their work and hand in again on another, final deadline. Sometimes peer feedback is built into this loop, but I’m still working on best practices for peer feedback. (I’d love to hear how others work with peer-to-peer support on writing assignments – I find it genuinely tricky because so few students understand, even with some practice, what makes writing good, bad, or great).

The key to my do-over assignment is two-fold: first, students get concrete suggestions from me on how to improve their papers, and if they do those things and hand in again their marks will go up. (If they do what I suggest but the results aren’t that much better, the mark doesn’t rise that much, but it still rises. How to deal better with this relatively common scenario is something else on which I’m still working.) Second, students are guaranteed that if they hand in again their marks won’t go down. Thus, if they take the second chance, the stakes are pretty low, but the potential for success, defined as a good mark, is quite high.

Last semester I used the above do-over on my students in my Naturalism seminar, and the outcomes were overall very good – as was student feedback on the assignment. Bowen confirms my hunch as to why: “Assessments that promote learning combine low-stakes and high-quality feedback. Both foster change and are highly motivating; it is easier to try something new if the stakes are low and easier to change when you are being encouraged and when you know exactly what change is needed.” I’ve hit an ethical snag, though – one I hadn’t even considered until it was pointed out to me by a colleague whose teaching I greatly respect. This method of assessment may work well for me and my classroom, but it can also create a perception of unfairness when my students are part of a tightly-knit cohort working in a small, close department. Queen Mary Drama has a rule in place (principally to promote fair, equitable practice across the board, while also protecting instructors’ time) that prevents us from reading and commenting on students’ work in advance beyond a very small proportion (about 10% of a paper); this gives us a very clear line to offer students who try to impinge on our time by getting us to, essentially, do their editing and leg-work for them in office hours. Thus, even though my do-over assignment has a basis in sound pedagogical practice, and even though it was built clearly (and equitably, for all students in the class) into my Naturalism syllabus from day one, it skirted a bit close to our departmental red line, as it risked placing unwarranted and unfair expectations on my colleagues.

I understand the issues at stake here, but I remain on the fence about their consequences. Naturally I want to be as fair as possible to my colleagues, but my first responsibility, as a teacher, is always to my students. Every year I see more and more students struggle to write well, and I know that, even though I’m trained to teach theatre, not writing skills, it’s my job to educate the whole student, which includes the student writer – and the student writer needs more help than the vast majority of Arts and Humanities programs currently offer. How to solve this catch-22? I suspect one answer is a curriculum review (luckily, I think Queen Mary has one on the horizon, and next week is our first Teaching and Student Support Committee meeting of the year…). That just might make (sanctioned) space for a few do-overs.