Present or else!

It’s spring break – that is, for everyone who attends or teaches in a grammar school in Ontario. This year I decided, along with several of my cycling friends who are grammar school teachers, that I needed a break break (I spent our Reading Week mostly working and fretting; it was not a break), so I decided to give my students a mid-March channel change. This week, they are working independently while I ride up a bunch of mountains in Table Rock, South Carolina. I’m on my bike 3-4 hours a day and otherwise sitting quietly, catching up on reading, eating (mostly) healthy and abundant food, drinking no alcohol whatsoever, and having a deep think.

One of the things I’m thinking about is the relationship between the assignments on my courses and student learning outcomes. How am I getting students where they need to be, on one hand, and where I want them to go, on the other? I’ve been considering lately how we might talk in new ways – to students, parents, administrators, and each other – about what social goods adhere to arts and humanities learning, and how those goods can be brought to bear on our “creative”, “information”, and “post-truth” economies (choose your adjective – I think they all mean similar things right now, alas). In particular, I’m wondering how we can start that process of revaluation inside the neoliberal university, encouraging administrators at the highest levels to recognise arts and humanities teaching as something to be better appreciated – both affectively, and fiscally – across faculty lines.

So, assignments. It matters what we ask students to do for marks, and not least because that impacts directly who can, or will, take our classes – students might want desperately to learn more about theatre, for example, but might not want to write a bunch of essays because a) they suck at them, b) essays aren’t valued in their home discipline, and/or c) they can’t afford to get a bunch of less than good grades on essays at which they believe they suck. (I recognise the inherent problem with fear of failure here, AND the problem with fear of learning new and hard things – but that’s another post.)

As I’ve been building my new Theatre Studies courses at Western (so far: intro to performance studies [“Performance Beyond Theatres”]; history of performance theory; a study abroad number called “Destination Theatre”), I’ve paid particular attention to alternative assignment submission structures. For example, this term students in both of my courses have the option of creating a traditional essay, a creative essay, OR an audio-video piece for their final projects. Research requirements are the same across all three, but the format options are designed to play to students’ individual strengths and interests.

One thing I’ve not managed to hack yet, though, is in-class presentations.

When I teach dramatic literature classes, I put students in groups and assign plays for scene study; sometimes we do these weekly, and sometimes we run scheduled scene study workshop days and show our labour all together. I’ve done both, each time incorporating Q&A sessions with each group, and they both work really well. The students learn deeply about the plays they are assigned, and they have the creative freedom (built into the assignment) to play around with the text, including the freedom to do a re-write or a physical theatre re-imagining of the work. Over the last decade, consistently students have returned again and again to their scene study texts over a semester or a year, doing superb things with them on essays, final exams, etc. The scene study assignments are both fun and win-win, where deep learning is concerned.

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OK, so this ain’t a scene study action shot. But it IS of my students – in last semester’s intro to performance studies – and they ARE making theatre (image theatre, to be precise). Plus, I just really love this photo. The students in the foreground are Olivia Helewa and Muhammed Sameer.

When I teach theory classes, however, I take a different approach. We’re learning a lot of challenging material, and all of it requires a knowledge of context. I scaffold assignments to help students figure out how to make sense of a piece of tough theory; I also invite research into social history and political context.

Right now, for example, my history of performance theory group are doing three short reflection papers. One asks them simply to “explain” the key ideas in a work – that’s it. The second asks them to “apply” the theory to something they’ve recently seen, live or on-screen. The third asks them to “expand” a theorist’s ideas by challenging, or pushing further, one of the more controversial aspects of the theory. They are also each required to do one in-class presentation on one theorist, offering social and political background to help us ground the theorist and their writing in space and time.

In the main, the presentations this year have been fine but not stand-out. The problem, of course, is that students find presentations stressful – and then they speak too quickly, or try to cram in too much information, and so on. They are worried they’ll miss some key point to do with the history; they are worried they won’t get through everything in 10 minutes; they are new to the material and thus unsure about everything they are saying. They are mighty nervous, full stop.

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Yup: sorta like that nervous.

I assign presentations of this sort in part to test this kind of stress; after all, many jobs require human beings to present material they have studied and/or know about in front of other human beings who do not know about it (yet). So learning to present comfortably and successfully in front of a group is a very, very transferable skill – and performance classes should teach it.

And yet. I’ve started really to question my use of the bog-standard context presentation this year. How much value is it adding to student experience in the class overall, and to the arsenal of students’ knowledge about themselves (or even about performance theory!) in particular? This isn’t a public speaking class; I don’t have the time in thirteen short weeks to cover the last 2000 years of thinking about drama and live performance, and to help students become stronger public speakers.

At least, not in this format I don’t.

Which is why, as I’ve been sitting here and gazing out at the Appalachians, I’ve been wondering about presentation alternatives.

The stress that builds up around scene study work is different from the typical public speaking stress I see in one-on-class presentations: it’s creative stress, it’s about anticipation rather than fear or dread, and it tends to be shared among group members in ways that usually work to alleviate rather than ramp up panic. The more I think about it, the more I think it’s ultimately more productive stress than the other kind: it encourages students to work in teams to support each others’ emotional and creative needs, and it requires both resourcefulness and flexibility, rather than just Wikipedia-trolling skills. These are, as my colleague and friend Barry Freeman argued in a recent reflection on the future of theatre studies teaching and learning (in the “Views and Reviews” section of CTR 161), exactly the kinds of skills we as theatre instructors need to provide for a range of learners – they are even more transferable, arguably, to both work and life, than the basic skill of “public speaking”.

I’m now trying to imagine how to incorporate more of my dram lit scene study model into my theory classes. I’m envisioning a “workshop” format for next year’s history of performance theory, in which every couple of weeks groups of students present a scene from a play or another piece of creative work designed to model two or three key ideas from the theorists we are studying. Or maybe I’ll trial a capstone format, where in the last week of class groups of students present creative material they’ve developed in response to one theorist’s work – a scene study, a manifesto, or a theorist “update” for the twenty-first century.

As usual, I’ll be polling this year’s class for their input at the end of the semester. Meanwhile, though, if you teach theory classes, and have creative ideas for in-class presentations, please leave a comment and tell me about it!

Kim

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On the freedom to move, and the freedom to be, part the last

(Over the holiday period I’ve done a series of posts about mobility, access, and equality. Read the previous posts here, here, and here.)

Over the Christmas break I got promoted. What a terrific gift at a challenging time of year. The promotion was especially welcome news because I wasn’t convinced, until the very last letter was signed, that it was actually going to happen; I was going up on the strength of a lot of edited work and teaching labour, not on the back of the coveted “second monograph” that is the “gold standard” in most academic departments like mine. So I’m genuinely chuffed to report that the external examiners, the internal committee, my Chair, Dean, and Provost all decided the work I’d done was in every respect worthy of promotion. A happy new precedent at my school, I hope.

This promotion doesn’t come with lots of added frills, mostly just bragging rights: I’ve got to the top of the academic food chain. But it has also come at an opportune time, just as I’ve been thinking about how and when and where we move, what privileges many of us can and cannot access – and how sometimes those who seem most mobile are in fact most profoundly stuck.

Academics have weird jobs. Those of us in tenured or tenure-stream positions get to work from home a lot of the time, and are often jetting around to conferences and paper-giving events around the world. I’ve piggy-backed most of my holidays for the last decade on top of cool conferences in Asia, Europe, and the states, airfare paid by my employer or an external granting agency. I’m writing this post in my pyjamas.

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We are, in other words, gifted with flexible time, the means to travel, and an awful lot of cultural power besides.

But that’s hardly the whole story. Most importantly, and worth mentioning straight away, is that those of us in cozy jammies are truly the gifted few: a shocking number of our colleagues work contract positions without benefits or job guarantees. They go to those same conferences, too, but on their own dime most of the time and in desperate need to land a more permanent job. They struggle under the heaviest teaching loads at most universities, and sometimes under heavy admin loads too. They work to survive, but appear outwardly to be mobile professionals. And that’s the way universities like it: the less attention drawn to the actual working conditions of sessionals, the better for a school’s bottom line.

(This is a subject that has been much written about, and my own experience of it is as an outsider, so I’m not going to focus on it here. But I want to direct attention its way, and for those interested in reading more I recommend the terrific work of Melonie Fullick in University Affairs.)

So being among the lucky, tenured few brings plenty of certainty, and stability, to be sure. And I am so, so grateful for both. But sometimes certainty and stability hide other problems – and I know these problems are relative, of course, but they are also real. I talked in my first mobility post, back in December, about the value of feeling placed in the world: knowing where we are rooted allows us to fly free. Those without roots – those who must migrate in order to survive – suffer the hard strains of place’s very lack. But being in place can also mean being profoundly stuck, and more than a few academics I know feel stuck, trapped in fact, in the very jobs that guarantee their livelihoods.

There are a few reasons for this.

The first is scarcity: tenured jobs, particularly in the Arts and Humanities where I teach, are fewer and further between than ever. Partly this is cyclical, but it’s primarily a side effect of the rise of neoliberal university culture, which depends increasingly on flex-time labour (sessional contractors without benefits), promotes STEM fields over liberal arts ones, and encourages instructors to teach toward future employment, rather than toward broad and informed citizenship.

(My own faculty is in big trouble these days, as are many of its kin across North America, because numbers in our classes are dropping – we tend to offer more citizenship training than job training, which seems nebulous and irrelevant to lots of people who just want to get good jobs/their kids to get good jobs. However, because our budget remains tied in large part to the number of bodies in our seats, fewer students wanting to learn about art, literature, and foreign languages right now means less money for all of those things in the future – especially for replacement faculty for those retiring today.)

In other words: when you get offered a tenure-stream academic job, dammit, you cling to it. Doesn’t matter where the hell it is.

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And there’s reason number two: universities are not exactly like engineering firms. Even if Richard Florida rates both profs and engineers as high-impact “creatives“, the fact is that as an academic you don’t generally get to pick the city you want to live in, or even the province or state. Even massive global cities boast at most half a dozen major schools, not all of which will have departments in your field (and even fewer of which will have hires coming up anytime soon). Then there’s the question of whether you could even afford to live in London/New York/Tokyo on a professor’s salary! (Answer: barely.) On the flip side, many universities, including very good ones, are in deep-space places: far from major cities, in towns where those not associated with the university resent it, or in a region that doesn’t share your political values in any way. If you realize one day, as a colleague of mine confessed to me recently, that you literally cannot bear the place your school is located as a home for your family one more minute, you’ve got two choices: massive upheaval, assuming you can find a comparable job elsewhere (big assumption), or leave the academy altogether and start over from scratch.

That brings me to reason number three academics get stuck: workload creep. Lots of us are in jobs where the day-to-day is so onerous it eats our research time in huge mouthfuls. Can’t publish the book/major article/make the major breakthrough at the lab, can’t move; it’s as simple as that, no matter how good an undergrad chair you are/how high your teaching scores tend to be. When I look at my permanent, tenured colleagues who struggle under 3- or 4-class per term teaching loads, plus administrative duties, I am genuinely embarrassed by how much time I have to write, edit, and publish. Yes, of course, I just got promoted to full professor at a relatively young age because I am totally gifted and amazing! But, no, wait: I ACTUALLY got promoted because I have made a series of life choices that mean I work in a department where I teach a 2-2 load, in classes with maybe 25 students each in them, and rarely have to do onerous admin without lots of help.

Now, about those choices… there have been some serious trade-offs. Some of them sit very heavy on me.

Some of them have broken my heart. But –

I know, I know: talk to the hand. We’re damn lucky. We have good jobs. We have salaries, benefits, and can’t be fired at the whim of our employers because we are protected by strong unions (often) and academic freedom (more often). Being a prof is fucking cushy, I won’t deny it. But it doesn’t mean we’re all just delighted, bouncing through the heather. Most of us are, in fact, depressed. Exhausted. Some of us are commuting huge distances on alternate weekends. Unsure if we’ll ever get out from underneath the job’s grind. Afraid to leave because where could we go? If we could actually get another offer at a better place, could our partners find work too? Would the kids mind moving thousands of kilometres away? And what if it was just more of the same?

While I was writing this post and fighting with myself to get the tone right, so I didn’t sound like an overprivileged douchebag whining about bullshit problems, I took a break to eat some dinner and watch Meryl Streep accept the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Golden Globes. It’s a riveting, heartfelt performance of hurt and despair at what might be the highlight moment of her career, and I really recommend a watch, if you’ve not seen it. Here it is:

Meryl reminded her audiences of a few important things in this speech. First, that Hollywood actors, and the Hollywood foreign press – despite being two of the most outrageously privileged groups on earth – are also currently among the most “vilified segments” in America (“Hollywood. Foreigners. And the press”). Why? Because it is their job, actors and journalists alike, to inhabit difference, call out falsehood, and speak truth to power – even when it places them at risk. She reminded everyone listening in the auditorium of the weight of responsibility their privilege brings, the responsibility to model empathy and compassion, and to refuse to stand for bullying, belittling, humiliating acts perpetrated by those with power. When we are secure, are em-placed, we speak from a built-in podium; let’s speak loudly, and clearly.

But let’s not underestimate our own vulnerability, either; that’s a lie that not only does our own selves a disservice, but also reduces the potential for ally-ship with others. And this is where those of us in secure academic jobs should learn from Meryl’s words: to be conscious of, and grateful for, our own freedom and mobility, but not to take it for granted, and never, ever to assume its normativity. It’s likely that more than a few of our colleagues, even just down the hall, are feeling more precarious than we know; if we overstate and universalise the privileges of this fortunate job, we risk erasing the details of struggles barely recognised.

There are lots of ways that tenured faculty can be allies with contract faculty, graduate students, and others in the university precariat, and we should embrace them all. But we must also be each other’s allies, and make space to talk honestly about that all-too-common feeling of entrapment that lurks around us. How might we alleviate it? I bet there are dozens of ideas waiting to be hatched, if we’d just take this problem seriously as shared, personal, and an impediment to our collective strength as teachers, scholars, and community leaders.

Job shares? Advocating for better regional transit on behalf of university populations? Proactive planning for commuting profs, including on-campus housing, centralised carpooling, air or rail discounts? New models for spousal hiring and support? These are off the top of my head, but I bet there are more, and better, examples floating around. I’d love to hear about them – please share!

Kim

 

 

 

On the power of academic protest (take academia back!)

If you work in the Canadian university system you have probably heard about what’s recently been happening at my school, Western University. Our president, chemical engineer Amit Chakma, is at the centre of a scandal about administrative pay: his contract permitted him to take home double his pay packet at the end of his first term in office, in lieu of the administrative leave he was due. (What is administrative leave? It is a sabbatical given to scholars after several years in major administrative jobs in order that they may catch up on their research work. Since university administrators are traditionally drawn from the faculty, the assumption is they will return to active teaching and research once their admin gig is done.) Admin leave is not a holiday with pay: it’s a chance to get back up to speed in the job for which you are normally paid, and from which you had been seconded in order to do administrative labour for the university. Dr Chakma’s poor choice, to take a huge bonus instead of leave, sent the opposite message: that research leaves are a kind of “free money” opportunity, paid for by the suckers who hold the public purse.

As a result of Chakma-gate, as this event and its aftermath have become known, my colleagues and I find ourselves exhausted and frustrated, as we constantly defend the nature of our work to friends, family, and beyond. The other week, to offer just one example, I found myself explaining to the farmer who produces my weekly veg box what sabbaticals are (essential, concentrated research time, during which the books and papers needed for tenure and promotion get written) and how difficult they can be to afford for many ordinary faculty members (at Western, you take a pay cut when you’re on sabbatical). I just wanted to buy my veg on my one free day that week! But when you’re confronted by (a totally kind, generally ethical) somebody who is pretty sure, based on his reading of recent events in the papers, that you are an overprivileged fat cat, well… it’s hard just to plunk down your $20 and walk away.

Professors – elitist ivory-tower dwellers blah blah blah – are easy targets at the best of times; now, Chakma-gate has got us mixed up in many minds with the bankers and politicians who cravenly screw the public over for money and power. The really sad bit, though, is that President Chakma’s contract provisions are only one very visible symptom of a much larger, systemic problem: university governance models, including at Western, rely increasingly on excessively paid career bureaucrats who dictate neoliberal policy from above to diffuse and vulnerable students and faculty below. As Terry Eagleton recently argued in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the impact of the problem is wide-reaching and most devastating for the liberal arts disciplines whose daily work is hardest to link directly to the profit motive. In other words: under Dr Chakma’s presidency, many of us in the ordinary faculty have felt left out and screwed over, too. And many, many of us have not reaped anything like the benefits he has – quite the opposite.

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That’s the depressing bit. The GOOD news is that Chakma-gate has also proven to be a truly galvanising force for faculty and students at Western who are fed up with a budget model that plays favourites among faculties and presses the arts and humanities to accept increasing austerity measures while lavishing money, support, and bling on STEM and the school of business. Protests, votes of non-confidence, and lots of discussion in the media have prompted Dr Chakma first to pledge to give back his “bonus” pay, and then to engage in what he calls “100 Days of Listening” as he speaks with different constituencies about our ongoing concerns. Looking out across our university’s rapidly decaying forest from the top of this particular tree, a number of my colleagues have chosen to take Chakma-gate as a real opportunity to try to arrest what sometimes feels like our intractable slide into a “new normal” – in which higher education is reframed as “job training”, with no room for the arts, social sciences, or any discipline in which the debating of ideas takes precedence over skill and content delivery in the service of increasing corporate profits.

This fight is a long time coming, and I can’t tell you how proud I am to be part of an academic community that is so geared up for it. For the two years I was in the UK, I lived and worked in the shadow of the dystopian endgame toward which schools like Western are marching. (I’ve written about this on the blog before; see here and here for two representative posts.) While I was part of the truly incredible Department of Drama at Queen Mary, University of London, one filled with brilliant community activists and scholar-artists, too regularly we felt like protest against the neoliberal hierarchy in which we were trapped was pointless and the system more or less immovable. The best we could do was keep calm, keep writing and talking about the problem, and then find a way to manage the workload amidst the gloom.

At Western, right now, I feel like we still have the chance to fight this fight and win – but the window is closing. As part of the ongoing protests in the wake of Chakma-gate, a handful of my colleagues have created an “alternative” 100-days-of-listening tour, in which faculty and students share their perspectives on the larger issues at stake via blog posts on social media, primarily through a dedicated tumblr account and the superb Facebook group, Take Academia Back. I recently contributed a blog post to the “alt” tour; it will be up shortly, and I’ll reblog it here at that time. For now, I want to urge all of you to click on the metadata links I’ve built into this post, read a bit about Chakma-gate and the protests in its wake, and follow similar stories on your home campuses and in your communities.

I also want to urge you, if you have not already, to join Take Academia Back on Facebook, to follow “Noah Confidenze”, our online protest alias, on tumblr – and to share in the comments below (or anywhere you think most productive) your own stories of fighting back against higher ed’s reductive and damaging new normal(s). Keep talking, and if you can, start mobilising! I know it’s extra work, and we’re all tired – but that’s the point, I suspect. The new normal wants us to be too tired to mobilise against it. That’s what makes it so dangerous.

'I love to come here because it reminds me of how I became a capitalist.'

This fight is too important to give up on. Our futures hang in the balance – and I know from my time abroad that it is not a future any of us would choose to live or work in.

In solidarity!

Kim