Reflecting on Uncertainty in Uncertain Times

Hello from another week of the odd times with the Activist Classroom. This week I reflect about navigating uncertainty in this, the strangest collective year in recent memory.

The novel coronavirus is a terrible party guest. It came uninvited. It’s wildly unpredictable. And, it’s armed with a thousand bad conversation starters:

What are the government’s plans for re-opening? Are resources reaching society’s most vulnerable members? What protocols will remain in place? How will they be enforced? When will children return to school? Should they return to school? When will retail open? What about the film industry? The fitness industry? What will universities do? Will we ever get theatre back?  What will the “new normal” look like? Are we already in it?

These questions run on loop in my head, in the news, in the endless zoom calls. They are, in fact, an articulation of one of the defining features of the Covid-19 pandemic thus far: uncertainty.

We don’t have all the information, and so we don’t have the answers. And no one else has them either.

1200px-Question_mark_(black).svg

The uncertainty itself isn’t unprecedented. People’s worlds are routinely turned upside-down by innumerable catastrophes and marvels. What’s unprecedented, at least in recent western memory, is that so many people are grappling with a similar set societal uncertainties at the same time.

In these uncertain times, I find myself turning to my favourite thinkers and writers. One of these thinkers is Sara Ahmed. From examining queer orientation to tracking the logic of happiness to researching diversity work and complaint in post secondary institutions, Sara Ahmed frequently begins with the question, “What does X [an orientation toward an idea, the concept of happiness, a commitment] do?”

Ahmed

The cover of Sara Ahmed’s recent book, Living a Feminist Life

As we move through the uncertainty of spring 2020, I find myself drawn to this question.

What is the uncertainty produced by the Covid-19 pandemic doing? More simply, what are the multi-layered (personal, social, political) effects of mass uncertainty?

One day, when I’m feeling intellectually sharper than these early pandemic days, I will probably ask these questions on a broader scale.

Right now, I’m drawn to my personal sphere. So, I asked my mother what she thought about uncertainty and the novel coronavirus.

“It’s the little things,” she told me. By way of example, she explained that she and my father didn’t know how to make a virtual doctor’s appointment.

“Do you want me to look it up for you?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I can look it up myself!” (Admittedly, I walked into that reply). “I’ve just never had to. I don’t know how it works or what to expect. The uncertainty makes you pay attention.”

Indeed.

Since the pandemic response ramped up in Canada in late March, I have felt the novel coronavirus’s call to attention across my life: at the grocery store, in the daily emails from my university, in hours-long phone calls with friends I may not see for a long time.

spotlight2

The Covid-19 pandemic has shone a spotlight on parts of my life. (Also: I chose this image because it’s a theatre stage illuminated by a pair of spots, and I miss theatre stages.)

I have noticed this call to attention in my teaching life, too.

Most folk have now weathered the mid-semester upheavals of the spring outbreaks and institutional closures, but the traditional post-secondary teaching structure has undoubtedly been shaken. As colleges and universities begin to plan for fall 2020 at least partly online, the lasting effects for classrooms — for the entire post-secondary norm — are, well, uncertain.

In terms of teaching, I, like everyone, am curious about all the big questions: Will classes be virtual in Fall 2020? What about Spring 2021? How will this affect teaching in the coming years? But, I find, too, that many more personal questions are floating to the surface:

  • How will I, who so value the “liveness” of both theatre and teaching, adjust to asynchronous virtual teaching methods?
  • How can virtual space prompt me to re-imagine my classrooms in new ways?
  • How will I support students, whose learning conditions and university experience are likely to undergo rapid changes in the months ahead, while also encouraging rigorous, critical engagement with the material we’re meant to be studying?
  • How will I learn from, and remain in touch with, colleagues (without getting bogged down in administration and endless virtual calls)?

My inner coordinator, the part of me that likes to plan and schedule and colour code things, is eager to start answering these questions. And, at some point, she will prevail.

But, for now, I have decided that my pedagogical work is about attunement and inventory: To where am I drawn? What do I turn away from? Where does pedagogical focus lead me? What questions do I return to? 

I am hopeful this work will anchor me – and perhaps, if you choose to borrow it, you – as I navigate the uncertain waters of the months ahead.

 

Reflecting on Teaching & Elections

The Canadian federal election took place on Monday October 21st. This post is an offering in the form of a reflection.

Tune in next time for Part II from Joanne Tompkins!

I wake up groggily.

My body urges me to hang onto sleep. But, my mind has other plans: I need to check my phone. I flop my arm out toward my nightstand, instinctively thumb my way to the interwebs, and pry my eyes open so that I can read the news. Nothing has changed in the time since I fell asleep: the Liberal Party of Canada won the most seats in the 2019 federal election and will seek to form a minority government.

Elections Canada

I spend the next forty-five minutes in a daze, scrolling through news and my social media feed. There is no lack of potentially unsettling items – election commentary, the popularity of the hashtag #weexit, signalling a surge of interest in Alberta’s separatist movement – but mostly I feel relieved that I didn’t wake up in an alternate reality where the balance of governmental power swung to the far right. It’s a low bar, but in the context of western politics this year, it nevertheless earns a sigh of relief from me.

Despite my relief, I’m grateful I’m not in a classroom today, an indirect result of teaching during the 2016 American election.

As you may remember, in the fall of 2016, Donald Trump ran against Hilary Clinton in the American federal election.

That same fall, I taught my first university course as an instructor. I was teaching an upper level theatre and performance theory class.

I’m largely proud of the pedagogical work I did in that class. Behind the scenes, however, it was what I would politely refer to as a shitshow. I was figuring out the online learning system and the specific potentials and constraints of the classroom space; I was doing huge amounts of prep work; I was playing with my style as an instructor; I was writing my dissertation prospectus; I was completing articles, and I was doing all of this while caring  for my mother who was undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer (I should say here: while she still has the routine tests, she’s currently healthy and there have been no signs of cancer since she finished treatment in 2017). It was, in short, not the easiest autumn for me.

Then, about three weeks into semester, I realized something: I’d scheduled my feminist theory class for the day after the American election.

Oh boy.

I’m not saying I wouldn’t do that on purpose, but it mattered that I hadn’t. And, it mattered, in particular, that semester. As November approached and the campaign filled the ether, I kept looking at my syllabus. There was no way that topic on that day was not going to be a thing.

Feminism & Theatre

Six weeks later, I was proven right.

Generally speaking, I’m a pretty emotionally even-keeled human. But, the results of the American election – wherein Donald Trump, after a vitriolic, racist, misogynistic, ableist, xenophobic, islamaphobic (to name a few of the plethora of “ists” that might be included here) campaign, became president of the United States of America – intersected with the challenges of my personal life and shook me. I cried most of the 45-minute drive to campus.

And, then, as teachers do, I pulled myself together, walked into class, and looked completely normal.

Things were not normal, however.

Even though I was teaching in Canada, I could see that the election results had significantly affected many of the students. They looked tired; their shoulders were slumped; their expressions were solemn, sad even. And yet, there they were, in their theatre and theory class at 10 in the morning, looking at me.

I could feel the teaching moment open-up in front of me: the next 80 minutes could be a lesson that bridged the classroom with the world, that created space for the plethora of student experiences (including those that were ambivalent or happy about the election results), and that prompted genuine dialogue.

Opening

And, just as quickly, I knew that I couldn’t capitalize on that opening. I was too new as an instructor and too personally exhausted.  I performed my lesson plan, and it went fine. But, it wasn’t transformational. It wasn’t even particularly good. It was just a lesson.

I know that many postsecondary teachers see elections as opportunities to generate dialogue or to meaningfully connect the classroom to the world at large. I respect that a great deal.

As an early carer instructor, however, elections have often felt like elastic bands around my teaching practice. The opportunity of the added tension is palpable but so are its constraints:

How do I capitalize on the increased political awareness that tends to accompany elections?

How do I encourage inclusive, respectful, dialogue?

How and to what degree do I perform my own political values?

How do I balance all of these questions in relation to my role as a contract instructor, in a workplace where many of my colleagues have positions that grant them more job stability, and by consequence, more room for error and conflict?

I don’t have the answers to these questions but I offer them, and my election reflections, as a gesture to the other teachers who don’t either.

Sometimes, we don’t, or can’t, capitalize on teaching moments. And, that’s okay. Others will come along.

In my case, I hear another federal election cycle is on the horizon in the United States. As you can imagine, I can hardly wait.

Teaching Transformation: Educating therapists in a relational context

When I went to school as a child and then as a young adult, I never thought of school as anything other than a place you learned things. I learned to do some chemistry, I learned about philosophy, I learned about feminism. Yet I didn’t become any of those things through my learning, at least not in a way I noticed.

After a few years of trying to be a lawyer after I learned how to do it, my great dissatisfaction with that process led me to a place where 1. I had a mental breakdown and 2. I needed to figure out what was next, because I clearly had not learned to be a lawyer, even though I knew how to do it.

Thanks to https://morguefile.com/creative/jim113/1/all for the photo

I wandered around in the wilderness for a year or so and then found something that looked promising. It was a tiny private psychotherapy training program and now, 19 years later, I’m a teacher in that program. In that school, I had a very alternative experience of learning a thing. I didn’t learn about it. I learned to become it and I did that through performing it, from the very first day.

So, when Kelsey approached me to contribute to this blog and I saw the blurbs meant to be the seeds of blossoming blog entries to come, I nearly jumped out of my skin to say yes to this project.

I am not an academic in the traditional sense. I have lots of education and more than a few degrees, none of which ever formally taught me to teach. I source my skill in the classroom from, amongst other things, my passionate belief in the power of the work I do.[1]

The ideas that I discuss here may or may not reside in the academic literature as a methodology or approach and I will freely admit I wouldn’t know. However, I also know there is value in the sort of “from the ground up” perspective I’m bringing here and I know that is one of the goals of bringing more voices into this forum.

37662c40222df7ead3aa82d53fd7b509

Professional learning can be a very passive experience. After all, the idea of professional education involves making sure that students acquire a set of knowledge and skill that meets a “universal standard” within some sort of regulatory frame. Universal standards are often codified by way of content or a practical skill and the way a student demonstrates them is through testing or performing a task.

Those elements are all present in my teaching. We ask students to read material and demonstrate the understanding of it through engagement in writing and discussion. We also ask them to practice in front of their teachers and peers through exercises and practice therapy dyads. Yet, I’m also aware that we do something else with these students in the way we are teaching them, something more profound than a knowledge and skill acquisition endeavour. It’s this element that I want to explore here.

My first question to myself is:

How do I even know this is different than other kinds of teaching or professional education?

I suppose I can answer that because I’ve done quite a bit of other kinds and nothing ever felt like this to me. I can also observe that I was asked to come teach this thing most profoundly on the basis that, in my every day work and life, I was the thing that I was being asked to teach. I want to highlight this simple language I’m using. I was asked because I “was the thing”, not because “I knew how to do the thing”.

Let me explain the “thing” a little more.

The approach we teach is a modality of psychotherapy but it isn’t really a technique, as narrowly understood. I like to tell my students that it’s a “sensibility” or a “way of being” in session that generates the conditions that allow for healing and growth.

Ideally, we create a therapeutic container in which a client feels safe, connected, emotionally regulated and profoundly understood. In that sort of relationship, stalled developmental processes reengage and all manner of things (symptoms, patterns, awareness, relational skill) improve.

So, I am tasked with somehow getting my students to a place where they can be the kind of person who can skillfully provide that kind of environment. Not only that, I want them to know how to handle what comes up when that environment is difficult for the client to create, maintain or tolerate. That is HARD. It would be extra hard if all we did was read books about it and write papers tests on it and then try to do it with only some vague notion of “active listening” and not a lot else.[2]

The question is: How do we do it? 

The answer? By “being the thing”.

Foundationally, we try engage all of our students as authentically connected and caring human beings. Our students are in a set of complex processes. These processes include not only the professional education they are engaged in but also their lives, relationships and histories outside school. We assume and invite them to impact and be impacted by our process.

Likewise, the facilitators are in process, impacted by the relationships within the teaching environment and our own lives and histories. We are constantly aware and mindful of how we leverage all of this into the transformative work of becoming a therapist. Becoming a therapist and being a client are parallel processes in this model.

For example, in a relational therapy, a client can eventually come to expect that their therapist will consistently provide feedback that evidences that therapist’s profound understanding of the client’s subjective state. This is the core experience that allows for the reactivation of developmental processes. Sometimes, the therapist doesn’t get it right and sometimes that results in a retraumatizing experience for the client, complete with a raft of negative emotions, angry outbursts and hurt feelings.

When this happens, it is the therapist’s job to untangle the interaction in a manner that conveys an understanding of how it happened, the therapist’s own role in the relational “miss” and also, if possible, to deepen the client’s understanding of how their implicit relational knowings (developed early in life) contribute to the intensity of hurt and dysregulation. This is a delicate dance that somehow conveys acceptance and understanding while encouraging re-evaluation of old ways of being and promoting affect integration and regulation.

Similarly, students have an expectation of being held in this program a certain way, even if it is only at the level of “teach me the things I need to know”. Inevitably, we fail them somehow and, in those moments, we are challenged to acknowledge, repair and deepen our understanding of the relational event that precipitated their disappointment.

Susan Tarhish

Susan Tarshis

We try very hard not to hide behind institutional systems of defense and deflection but rather invite the issues into process so that we can resolve them in a relationally sound way. By that I mean a way that promotes feelings of security, growth, deepening connection and community.

If all that sounds like a lot of work, well, you are darn right it is. Why would anyone ever agree to teach with those kinds of really intimate demands for relational engagement, with a student body of nearly 40 people?

My gut answer is that it is the most important job in the world because it’s teaching people to go out and do one of the most important jobs in this world. I am not even talking about the job of being a Registered Psychotherapist in the province of Ontario. I’m talking about going out in the world knowing how to skillfully navigate your relational environment in a way that feeds healthy community. I’m talking about “being the thing”.

Maybe this is sounding profoundly arrogant, that I not only teach people to be good therapists but also help them to be better people.

Yet, I’ll stand my ground on that one. I KNOW I am a better, more skilled, more able, more open, more resilient human in relationship because of the work I did in this program.

When our students graduate, most of them (certainly not all of them) speak to the profound change, including turmoil, that the training brought to their lives. They speak to the complicating of their emotional and relational landscape and their gratitude and wonder at the transition they have made.

It’s not perfect. It’s messy and sometimes it even hurts but teaching this way is one of the most impactful things I have done with my life thus far. I’m pretty sure that’s a definition of an “Activist Classroom”.

[1] The thoughts I’ve put together here are based on my experience and not meant to be the official position or methodology of the school.

[2] I will confess this may have been my experience in the more academically formal environment in which I got my University education in counselling.

Being a Student Again: How Taking Classes Made Me Reflect on Teaching Classes

I feel like I’m in high school again, and it’s been an unexpectedly good thing for thinking about teaching.

I recently moved to Montreal and decided to take French classes. As I filled out the online registration forms, I thought to myself, “A little morning routine, a little french, and the possibility of interaction with other humans in the brand new city I’ll be google-mapping my way through? This is a great settling-into-a-new-city-plan.”

I wasn’t wrong: the classes have been immensely useful for grounding my first couple of weeks. They have also been unexpectedly helpful for thinking about my own teaching.

Here are the top three things that being a student has got me thinking about:

The Vulnerability of Learning

As a kid, I was in French immersion – a Canadian public school program where students from non-French speaking families take most of their elementary and high school classes in French. So, technically, my French is decent. Practically, it is not.

Trying to find my knowledge of French has been felt like being in the movie Inside Out: I spend my morning classes running around my brain, searching for old memories. Much to my dismay, it seems that many of these memories have been dumped to make room for new skills and knowledge.

To the shock of no one that knows me: I have a robust set of feelings when I’m not instantly good at something. So, when my teacher hands back my homework, and I see the 1003 minor grammar errors, I can’t help but wince a little.

Other than the hit to my ego, this has been a critical reminder of the the vulnerability of not knowing, of not understanding, of trying but not getting it right the first, second, or even the third time. I try to acknowledge this vulnerability when I teach but sometimes I forget how amplified it can feel for students.

Exams

Three weeks ago, I could not have told you the last time I took a midterm. That changed, last Wednesday. And, much to my surprise, I think that’s a good thing.

As a university instructor, I know that tests can be good evaluative and pedagogical tools, and I do incorporate final exams into some courses. But, I also know that tests favour certain learning styles over others and can prompt huge levels of stress and anxiety for students. In the context of rising mental health crises across American and Canadian post-secondary campuses, the stakes of stress and anxiety can be concrete and significant. It doesn’t help that, even when test-related stress is contained to the classroom, students generally hate exams.

Actual archival evident that I took a French midterm some time after high school.

In my French class, I was no different. I did not want to take my midterm. In fact, I briefly considered refusing to do so (me: at my most mature).

After having a little chat with myself, however, I decided to write the midterm. This meant I had to study. And, you know what? Studying prompted me to engage with the material in a way I’d been avoiding: I went back and reviewed some of the core concepts; I memorized the rules; I did mock exercises.

Did it bring back a whole bunch of weird want-to-succeed-in-evaluative-contexts feelings? Why, yes it did. Did it also light a fire under my learning feet? Most definitely.

On Mattering

As a university instructor, I’m aware that, within the context of a classroom, I am in a position of power. As a student, I am am actively reminded of how this power looks and feels.

The teacher – who is like every french teacher I can remember: energetic, kind, passionate, precise – is the point toward which I, and all the other students, are oriented physically and intellectually. And, boy oh boy, do we notice everything she does:

  • I notice that she tends to stand on the right side of the white board (likely so she doesn’t have to cross when she needs to start to write a sentence). This means that she often unintentionally favours the right side of the class, who are physically closer to her.
  • Another student feels that she pays more attention to those with stronger language skills.
  • Another student feels her pedagogy is better than any of the other instructors they’ve had.

Even for adults with diverse areas of expertise and experiences (the class of twelve includes adult learners from 7 different countries who work in a range of fields from health care to hospitality to academia) the teacher matters, and that mattering often articulates in very embodied, and sometimes very emotional, ways.


I already knew all of these things, of course.

After all, I’ve spent big chunks of my adult life as a student. And, even though I’m done with formal coursework (phew!), I’m an active learner. I take professional development workshops, praxis sessions, and all kinds of classes. And not all of these classes are in areas where I excel either. I, Kelsey Blair The Historically Inflexible, take yoga classes.

But being in a semi-intensive, pass-or-fail class with medium-level stakes for most of the students has reminded me, at a bodily level, of what it feels like to be a student.

This, in turn, has reinforced something I already suspected: being a student, particularly in moderate- to high-stakes environments, is invaluable to the development of my teaching practice.