Academia and Physical Pain: A Conversation with Sandra Chamberlain-Snider

Well folks, here we are, headed into one of the stranger April long weekends in recent memory.  Wherever you are, we hope you and yours are healthy, sheltered, and well in these strange and tender times.

To ring in the days off, we thought we’d share a post about self-care.

As scholars, we talk a lot about disability, and as teachers, we tend to think about mental health provisions for our students. But, chronic pain sometimes gets lost in the shuffle of hidden disability, if it’s noted at all.

Below, Kelsey and Sandra Chamberlain-Snider, a PhD candidate at the University of Victoria, chat about their experiences with chronic pain.


In my work for this blog and in my daily life, I write and talk about dozens of issues related to post secondary instruction and my experiences as an emerging scholar. Pain is rarely one of these topics.

Yet, physical pain has been one of the constants in my scholarly life. I’ve had roaming stiffness and/or pain in multiple areas of my body for years. Officially speaking, I have been diagnosed with a systemic form of arthritis. In reality, things are a bit murkier, and the diagnosis is closer to my rheumatologist’s’ current best guess.

In chatting about my experiences with friends and colleagues, folks have often disclosed that they, too, are quietly navigating on-going challenges related to pain, illness, or injury. (Strange coincidence side-note: Kim and I have EXACTLY the same autoimmune / chronic pain diagnosis.) While I don’t want anyone to experience discomfort, I have often found these conversations heartening: they provide new ideas or resources and remind me that I’m not alone.

So, I thought I would curate such a conversation for this blog.

To do so, I reached out to my friend and colleague, Sandra Chamberlain-Snider – a PhD candidate at the University of Victoria, who, like me was diagnosed with a systemic form of arthritis during her graduate studies.


Sandra Chamberlain-Snider

KB: Can you tell me a little about your journey with pain as a PhD student?

SCS: I’d had pain for years but I’m in my middle-fifties. I figured it was part of life. And, I’d also had skin issues for a long time. My GP had been treating me for eczema. In 2016, I got a blood infection from the cracks in my feet, and he sent me to a dermatologist. He took one look at my skin and said: “That’s not eczema. That’s psoriasis.” That kicked things off. Then, a year and a half ago, I started seeing a rheumatologist who diagnosed me with psoriatic arthritis.

Now, the skin issues come and go. Sometimes, it’s great. But, the pain has been a constant. It’s difficult because it’s in your hands and you’re trying to write or type or even look half-way professional with colleagues, or you are interviewing someone and suddenly your hand will cramp up and it’s not like I can just get up and leave the room and shake it off. It became a bit of an issue.


For folks with musculoskelatal pain, there are lots of “tools” for self-massage, rolling, and stretching. Many of these can be purchased for a fraction of the price at your local dollar store: bouncy balls can be used for trigger points, rolling pins can be used as rollers etc.

KB: I get that. I have a few psoriasis patches and roaming pain and stiffness. The pain comes and goes from lots of different places including my left big toe, my left ankle, my right knee, both of my hips, my lower back, the knuckles on my left hand, my right wrist, both my shoulders, and my neck. Also, I currently can’t fully bend my middle or ring finger on my right hand, which all the doctors describe as – and I’m quoting here – “weird.” But, the relatively recent addition of pain in my hands has added an extra degree of urgency because it directly affects my ability to work.

SCS: For me, I know that’s a good part of why I’m in my seventh year of my PhD. My hands only give me so much time during the day. Some days are good. I can get a few hours in. Some days, I get half an hour in and then I have to take a break. And, you know how hard it is to go back into writing or researching when you’ve been interrupted in the middle.

KB: I totally do. Writing is a fragile art. Or, at least it is for me. Especially with heavy-thinking work: it takes time to ease into. If I get pulled away from it, I often have a hard time finding my way back.

SCS: Yes! I try to explain that to my husband all the time.

KB: And, there’s also a strange balance of figuring out when to attend to the pain and when to push through. My friends – many of whom are disability studies scholars – remind me that it’s important to pay attention to my body and that working more slowly can be an act of resistance. (For more on this, Petra Kuppers’ work is an excellent starting place.) I’m trying, but it’s … ahem … still a work in progress.

On an everyday level, I spend a fair chunk of time trying to find “hacks” to make my working conditions easier: I have figured out that suspenders let me keep ice on my shoulders while typing; I have crafted a standing desk from an ironing board (highly recommend); and I have managed to troubleshoot my way through the logistics of working lying down.


One of Kelsey’s crowning achievements: a do-it-yourself set up for working lying down. If anyone wants to try, the key is that you still need proper eye-line ergonomics, which means you need to align your forehead with the top third of the screen.

I’m super pleased with myself on most of these discoveries. But, I do find that simple things – like sitting ergonomics – are made harder by the structures of academia.

In the last six years, I have variously worked as a graduate student, sessional instructor, and postdoctoral researcher. But, I’ve never had a permanent office. Compared to the systemic discrimination and barriers that so many people encounter, this hardly constitutes an issue but it means that I can’t curate my working space.

SCS: Or, the space isn’t there when you’re able to use it. In 2016, we [Sandra’s family] got kicked out of our rental and we had to move quickly. In the new place, I have this little room to do work in. Which is great. I’m feeling good and ready to go. But, then my husband decides to pull out the ceiling for nine months, so I was working in the dining room area with two dogs, and I couldn’t get any work done. And, I went to the local library and the universities to work, but it wasn’t as efficient. So, finally, nine months later, everything was stable, but then the pain came. And, it was like you walk two steps forward and then get pushed back.


I [Kelsey] have experimented with loads of apps that help track pain and/or body cycles (pain, movement, menstrual cycle, sleep etc). Some help. Some don’t. The ones that do help offset some of the mental tracking labour.

KB: Totally, and it doesn’t only impact writing and researching; it also affects teaching.

Last year, I was mid-way through a class on performance and archives, and my pain suddenly flared. It was intense enough that I felt light-headed. At the break, I took myself to the washroom and had a very earnest conversation:

“Kelsey,” I said to myself. “Is there any chance you’re going to pass out? Because, if there is, you need to call off class.”

After a bit of back and forth, I decided I was okay to continue.

In retrospect, I think I’d try to handle that differently by signalling to my students I wasn’t feeling well or ending the class early. But, I often think about that moment because it drew my attention to how few resources were available to me to mitigate the situation.

Unlike elementary or high school teachers, university instructors don’t have colleagues down the hallway who can step in. I can ask people to cover classes, but pain isn’t predictable. And, even if it was, there isn’t a pool of substitute teachers. Usually, I’m asking a colleague, and I often need to bank some of those favours for conference travel or the like.

SCS: I think, too, it’s part cultural: When do you ask for help?

KB: Oh yeah … totally.

SCS: We’re academics. Even though there’s lots of issues and precarity, many of us are fairly privileged in that we get to study what we want to study. So, you’re not always quick to call out. Or to ask for a favour.

KB: And more generally, patriarchy, neo-liberalism, global capitalism – all the “isms” really – tend to belittle interdependence and asking for help. I’m trying to apply concepts from anti-oppression groups, disabilities communities, and critical disability studies to my everyday practices, but it’s not always easy.

Let’s talk about chronic and other kinds of pain, not only in private discussions over a beverage of choice, but also with our colleagues, students, and institutions.

SCS: And, when you’re in pain, you’re not always the most even-tempered person. My husband and I have been in each other’s lives for over forty years and he’s gone through some suffering as well. The last couple of months have been particularly difficult because we’re both in pain. And occasionally I’m like, “Oh my God, are we becoming this squabbling old couple?” But you have to step back and recognize what’s happening, which is, in the moment, so hard.

KB: Yes. I’d like to say that my experiences with pain make me more empathetic, and sometimes they do. But, when I’m having intense amounts of pain, that’s not always true.

And not all the work is personal. Some of it has to be broader. I’m trying – where I can – to push for, and model, systemic changes.

As a teacher, I try to incorporate pain, illness, and injury into access statements and course policies. I’m also working to recognize that not all experiences of pain are going to fall neatly into the purview of institutional access and disability protocols. I can (and want to!) work with students and colleagues to figure out how to navigate bodily changes and to respectfully support one another.

I’m also working to be more open with my own experiences, both as a principle (vulnerability can be really powerful) and to spark discussion. The more I talk to people about my pain, the more they talk about theirs. Those discussions are critical for changing larger circles of discourse.

SCS: Yes. Absolutely.

KB: And, this chat is part of that, I suppose.

SCS: Glad I could be a part of it!

Learning from the un-schedule

Back in September I wrote about my cunning sabbatical plan to organize my life according to an “unschedule”: a daily planner that begins with life stuff, and fits work in around it (or leaves “free” time blank for work, should work wish to happen). I respond incredibly well to deadlines and boundaries, so this seemed the ideal solution to my perennial sabbatical problem: TOO MUCH UNSCHEDULED TIME (IN WHICH TO PANIC).

I’ve now been following, to greater or (mostly) lesser degrees each day, my unschedule for about 3 months; it’s therefore time for me to take stock, and to report on how it’s worked out.

Was it the raving success I was hoping for? Was it a total disaster?

As we might have predicted, it was a bit of both. Which is no bad thing!

First, the good news: I achieved pretty much exactly what I had intended the unschedule to help me achieve. I have a book due in February, of which I had written not one word when I created the unschedule back on 21 September. I now have just over 42,000 of the 50,000 words expected by my publisher, and the book is shaping up really well.

Next, the less good news: while the unschedule helped me to prioritize a very decent balance between “work” and “life”, as I noted in my last post “life” does not equal “rest”, and I did not manage to achieve much of the latter (so much so that my chronic joint problems have been acting up, and I’ve been at least as exhausted as usual much of the time).

That’s not reflective of a problem with my unschedule, though; in fact, it’s something the next version (see below) may help me address.

Third, the fine print: mostly the unschedule wasn’t something I was ever going to use as a schedule. It was, rather, a kind of self-initiated Rorschach Test. And in that, it succeeded brilliantly. Below, I’ll try to take stock of what it taught me about myself, and I’ll share my revised unschedule for winter.

To start, here’s a reminder of what my unschedule, circa late September 2017, looked like:

Screen Shot 2017-09-21 at 10.56.06 PM

The unschedule was never meant to be a test of my resolve; I did not create it in order to follow it to the letter. Quite the contrary: I made it in part to measure my aspirations for my sabbatical days against the reality that is my daily life. I expected the two not to line up perfectly, but I also hoped to learn from the comparison.

To that end, I decided, for the first 20 or so days on the unschedule (roughly, a month of workdays), to keep a brief daily diary with times and tasks noted. The two could then easily be compared to see where my time was actually going.

Here are a few photos of my notes from those early days:

Looking back on the notes, a few things stand out.

First, Stuff Happens. Moreover, the Stuff that Happens is probably not worth judging (because judging it won’t change it). So I got up later than scheduled many times; I AM NOT A MORNING PERSON, AT ALL. Trying to schedule myself to become a morning person is unlikely, at this stage in my life, to change me. Other mornings got taken up with personal things when the man I’m dating stayed over; I panicked about that a bit until I remembered that having a life (including a sex life!) ultimately makes work bearable. And, after a time, he and I settled into a routine where I would write and he would work, too, after breakfast; that solved it. Sometimes I had to travel, or there were meetings, or… or… or… Again: STUFF HAPPENS. What matters to me, looking back, is how I dealt with these intrusions into the hoped-for ideal, since the ideal wasn’t ever going to be fully achievable.

My diary entries also reveal that, despite getting up later than scheduled or having other things get in the way around my scheduled writing time, I still prioritized writing daily, for about 2 hours give or take. After the writing, more or less anything could happen: I’d penciled in workouts and/or house things, maybe more work for afternoons, but the reality, I found, was that after the writing had happened I felt a mix of satisfaction and relief that would then let me get on with my day, in whatever form it took.

Notably, I rarely missed walkies with Emma The Dog. This made her very happy. It also brought me joy, which I think is incredibly productive.


(Emma on a woodland trail near our new home. She’s distracted by a squirrel, or something even tastier.)

I’m generally a very active person, and my original unschedule included a lot of workouts; the challenge, I found, was that my new living situation (I moved to a new city in August) necessitated me getting into fresh activity habits based on the resources around me. I can ride my bike anywhere, but not when the wind is blowing at 50kph – and it helps if I already know the route home, in case of emergency. I love to row, but with winter coming on I needed to find a reliable place for land training. There’s a yoga studio near my house, but I haven’t loved many of the classes I’ve tried there. I’ve been experimenting with stair climbing, since there’s a lot of that available free in my new neighbourhood. And I’ve been swimming more than I expected.

All of this means that I did not keep to my un-scheduled fitness plan, in part because of all the trial and error. The trade-off, however, was a lot of useful learning about my new surroundings, and some valuable time spent settling into my new place.

Taking stock of the patterns in my diary, one thing has become crystal clear: the ONLY thing that was essential for me every day was writing. I can’t tell you what a revelation this has been!

I have resisted for a long time the common advice given to academics to write every morning for an hour, to “pay yourself first”, just to sit down and do it. Staunchly, I  insisted that such a strategy would not work for me/that I didn’t need it/that my writing does not work that way/fill in any excuse here.

The truth, my activity log showed me, is that sitting down with only my computer (but no email!) for a modest but set amount of time each day is an incredibly productive way for me to write. Requiring myself to make the time to think and write, and thus to think by writing, meant my vision for the book evolved, deepened, and changed for the better as I went along.

Most importantly, after a good couple of hours’ writing, I always felt renewed and strengthened, much as I often do at the end of a good workout. This I found remarkable, surprising, and so valuable – so much so that writing will be at the heart of any “un-schedule” I make from now on.

I also learned one other very important thing about myself from my (predictable) failure to adhere to the letter of the unschedule. I learned that I over-schedule myself, no matter what I do.

If I have down time, rest time, I judge myself: MUST GET BACK TO SOME KIND OF WORK! This might be housework, work-work, or athletic work. I do not permit myself to just sit there with a cup of tea, staring out the window.

But why the hell not? If anything, the fact that – despite unschedule, and despite sabbatical – I am at least as tired as usual this December is indicative of the problem with this sort of thinking.

If I had rested more this past term, might I have been more “productive” in my work-work? Maybe. Truthfully, though, more productive was not what was needed: I objectively produced a hell of a lot of research-related stuff. Had I rested more, though, I suspect I might be better prepared, right now, both physically and emotionally for Winter 2018 – in which I will start commuting to my campus responsibilities in London, Ontario, and in which all manner of winter-related crap is bound to rain down (probably on the highway while I’m driving, among other places).

Rest is in itself productive! We know this – sort of. Culturally, we’re still learning this message; personally, I’ve realized that I need to trick myself into rest, because I am a type-A, professional, middle-aged North American woman and old habits die hard. That’s why my new, simplified, improved un-schedule contains Less Stuff, and more room to manoeuvre.

Kim's winter 2017 unschedule

You’ll note that there’s still something in every block of time (save two), but I’ve made the blocks larger and less specific on purpose. The point is: within that block, everything I’ve listed either has to happen (teaching) or is likely to get done (row, or yoga, or walkies – though only walkies is *truly* essential. Dog owners will understand).

The only other fixed thing, for me, is the writing: I’ve made it a reasonable amount on purpose, just one hour each morning of the week that I am not commuting to classes. I’m hoping thereby to maintain my good new writing practice, and to nurture its tangible benefits, while also freeing myself to move a bit more flexibly around other tasks (and hopefully give myself time for rest, too).

Have any of you tried the unschedule, or variations, since September? If you have, I’d love to know how it’s going. Leave a comment or shoot me an email.

And meanwhile, have a really, productively joyful holiday break!



Write. Just write. And be amazed.

You might be familiar with this advice often given to graduate students and research faculty alike: if you need to get something written, set aside a bit of time every day – we’re talking, like, 20 minutes, maybe 30 – and just sit down and do it already. Be prepared for a lot of what you write ultimately to go in the bin. Be prepared to find it cringe-inducing to begin writing, not like what you appear to be writing, and yet still have to keep going until the egg timer makes its pinging sound. And be prepared for the thing you need written, amazingly, actually to get written.

I freely confess I’ve not followed this advice myself in recent years – and I have to say I regret it. I’ve realised lately that I’m not getting the writing done that needs (or wants!) doing, and while I often blame my teaching and service workload for clawing time away from my writing, especially in the school term, the sad truth is that I could easily find 20 minutes a day to write. I just choose not to find it – and my mood suffers as a result.


This truth was driven home to me in late January when Melanie Mills, the instructional librarian attached to the Department of English and Writing Studies at Western, visited my modern theatre class to take us through a time management exercise. (You can read a bit more about that here.) This exercise is attached to the students’ current research essay task: in addition to writing their research essays, the students all made time management plans, and I asked them each to keep a time management journal. (Handing in their plans and journals with their essays guarantees them a free 5% on top of their research essay grades.) I also asked them to select their own, custom due dates for their essays; the idea was to give them the freedom to work their essays into their term’s labour in a way that made sense for their own, individual schedules. Of course, the time management tasks, plus the customising of due dates, had another purpose too: to force students to confront their procrastinating tendencies head-on, and to reckon with them.

What happened when I did the time management exercise with Melanie and the class back in January? Surprise, surprise: I ran smack into my own procrastinating tendencies. I learned that, on the scale she gave us, I score a bare 6/10 for TM skills. In particular, the exercise revealed that I am bad at setting priorities for myself. I tend to do the work that will create an easy sense of satisfaction at the end of a day (teaching/marking tasks, addressing emails and shrinking the inbox, writing blog posts […ahem]), and I put off for another, “protected” day the things that I deem most challenging and often most important to my sense of self (like writing). Of course, those “protected” days are a ruse. They usually don’t come. Or they come rarely. And when they do, the build-up is so severe that sitting in front of the screen to write becomes a stomach knot-inducing burden, an all-or-nothing high-stakes game.

Scoring a C in time management lit a bit of a fire under me. No, I’ve not been writing every day – not yet. (See my last post for the panic under which I’ve been working this term; I’m barely hanging on, but looking much forward to the change that end of term brings in three weeks’ time). But I have been thinking more and more about the ways in which we all (including me!) tend to equate writing with the highest of stakes, about how to lower those stakes a bit, and about different ways to help students, in particular, to recognise the value of setting aside just a small portion of time in a day, sitting down with the anxiety, pushing it to one side, and writing something, anything, just to see what happens.

I’ve been an advocate for short bursts of writing in the classroom for a while; I got religion while at Queen Mary, and I learned a huge amount from the team in the Thinking/Writing program there. The ethos behind that program is nicely captured in a very recent article by Neil Haave for the National Teaching and Learning Forum, in which Haave argues that writing is a thinking process, not just its outcome or record. Citing scientific research into the cognitive changes that writing induces, Haave writes,

By placing thoughts in the structure of a sentence, we produce vehicles of thought that then may be manipulated on the page or screen (Menary 2007). The act of manipulating the thought vehicles (sentences) is a way of manipulating our thinking by integrating different ideas—it produces thinking: Writing is thinking. Thus writing is not just about enhancing memory and recording thoughts—it is not simply the recording and transmission of information, though it does play that additional role. Rather, when writing sentences, creating new sentences and moving the contained phrases and container sentences around in new structures, the writer is actively thinking, bringing ideas together in new ways that illuminate each other in a manner unknown until that moment.

What this kind of research teaches us is, I think, ground-breaking: that when we write, stuff moves in the brain. We change. We develop. We learn, and we grow. It might not feel like it at the time, but that’s what’s happening: we’re learning and growing as we struggle to get word onto page.

This is a really liberating way of thinking about writing and the anxiety it brings, if you ask me. It puts in a very different, much more positive light those moments that, let’s face it, we ALL fear, that produce a lot of the fear that stops our writing from starting in the first place. That is: those moments when we hit a wall, don’t know where to go next, don’t see how all the ideas connect up… because our brains are in the process of making fresh, often complex, discoveries about how the ideas on the page will finally come together. We just don’t know what that looks like yet. We’re still working it through –  but we can only work it out by writing about and often around it. Ironically, these moments are the moments that necessarily precede the breakthroughs. They are also, however, the moments when many of us (me included…) often stop, panicked, and close the laptop.


This photo is by Kalindy. See more here.

Haave says: “I believe that one of the reasons students have a difficult time writing is that they spend so much time thinking about what to write before they write as opposed to simply writing what they think.” The solution, for him, is to create as many opportunities as possible for students to write down what’s going through their heads as they work, and to share that low-stakes (not for grades!) writing with a peer partner as often as possible.

I use these kinds of low-stakes writing exercises in class all the time, and a number of past students have reported to me on their value for their own learning practices. But in honour of the specific challenges posed by our research essay task and time management meta-tasks this spring, last week in modern theatre I went one better. I turned our final class hour into a writing “retreat”, inviting students to come to class and just write for 50 minutes. Melanie was there to offer support, as was I and my TA, Meghan. We volunteered to talk through difficult issues with students, to read bits and pieces, to help with research challenges, and to brainstorm around thesis statements that just weren’t quite there yet. I explicitly styled this hour as a gift – students could choose not to come, though regular absence penalties applied, but I told the students that I hoped they would come, because when were they going to gift themselves a whole hour just to write, and then to put the writing away and get on with the day?

In the end, more than half turned up – and in mid-March. I’m calling that a win, for them and for writing-as-thinking. I just wish I’d given myself that hour to write, too.



On making English Lit students get up and perform – really well

Those of you who know a bit about me, my research and my teaching know that I am famous (particularly in the Department of English and Writing Studies at Western University) for making students in my honours-level English classes perform, all the time, for marks and not for marks. The point of our performances is to discover the story that human bodies tell about play scripts, which is often a very different story from the one that the script alone can tell. When I began teaching at Western in autumn 2005 I became quickly notorious as the woman who made groups of students stage scene studies and withstand Q&A sessions with peers every week. Every week! But the information, the pleasure, the strength, the joy that work provided was and has been pretty much endless, certainly for me and likely for a number of students now long graduated who have been kind enough to keep in touch. (A lot of those students just killed their Finals to boot, thanks in part to inspiring peer performances in class.)

When I moved to Queen Mary, University of London in autumn 2012, the shape of my teaching changed. A Drama Department is different from an English Department in so many ways; principal among these at QM was the focus on political, socially aware embodiment we promoted in every class we taught on our Honours BA in Drama program. In my studio classes I had to develop different approaches to teaching familiar texts: instead of relishing occasional performance, I had to figure out how to balance expected practice work with small-group learning about the theory behind the making. In my seminar classes, meanwhile, I had to find ways to incorporate performance research experiments without taking too much time away from our class discussions of readings, and without making those experiments seem like banal, poor relations to the more intensive work completed in studio. (I actually don’t think I succeeded on this front; something to aspire to in future, then.)

So goodbye said I to the weekly scene studies familiar from Western – there just wasn’t place nor reason for them at QM. But fresh challenges – namely, teaching critical and political approaches to performance to freaked-out first-year students who had just finished A-level devising and had no idea what was about to hit them – prompted fresh learning, for me as much as for them. I thought hard about how to shift the model I’d been using at Western to suit a QM first year audience. I met with the brilliant folks at Thinking/Writing, part of the QMUL library’s stable of resources. And I talked to people in my department – strong and well-loved teachers all – about existing best practices.

This is how, in place of my old, weekly scene study scheme (better adapted to students for whom performance is newly illuminating as an approach to textual exegesis), I came to institute a pair of mandatory performance workshop days for my first year class, “Performance Texts”. In each of these workshops, a different group of students (actually, four groups of students per day – it was a huge class) would present 10 minutes of work inspired by a specified text. (Including, for example, Kane’s Blasted, Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, and Fugard’s The Island – eclectic as a mix, but all politically and emotionally challenging works.) One workshop happened earlier in the term, and was keyed to the first assignment; the second workshop happened closer to Christmas, and was generally a lighter affair because students knew what to expect (and that it would be fun!). In both cases, and across both classes in two different academic years, I can honestly say that I had four of the best teaching days of my life.

The workshop system – aided by the suite of fantastic exercises, including both free-writes based on students’ “critical moments” from each performance, and group discussion followed by a performer Q&A, both developed in conjunction with Kelly Peake from Thinking/Writing – worked better than my weekly scene study scheme ever had. Why? Basic chemistry: students were sharing a hot-house community environment, in which they were literally all in it together for two or so hours, and in which they had to work together and individually in a variety of guided ways. The energy in the room was high, the students’ level of engagement palpably strong, and the level of discourse impressive for a group of first-years, thanks in large measure to the writing exercises Kelly suggested we use to guide students’ engagement, channel their energy, and prompt targeted discussion. So, when I returned to Western this past autumn and resumed my place at the front of the Department of English and Writing Studies’ honours-level modern theatre class, I decided to import my new performance workshop plan rather than revert to the old scene study framework.

I knew straight off the bat that the biggest challenges I’d face in this new environment would be a brace of English and Writing Studies students who would be a) terrified of performing, and b) uncertain what was expected of them on this important day called Performance Workshop #1. The old scene study scheme had strengths and weaknesses, and one of its strengths was the normalisation of performance in my English classes. Performing is what you did, regularly; learning from class performances happened every week. Students figured out quickly how to read performance effectively – you had to or you were screwed. Under the new workshop system the stakes were oddly heightened, even though I try to chill the stakes in class whenever possible, the better to encourage creative thinking and risk taking. But I couldn’t avoid the fact that our first performance day would be loaded with risk for half of the class, the half that was expected to get up and show us something good.

How did we prepare for the big day? My TA, Madison Bettle, and I worked hard in the lead-up weeks to help students start acclimatising to the differences between reading plays as books and reading plays in performance. We looked at some clips from the outrageous, compelling, controversial Berlin Schaubühne adaptation of A Doll’s House, and we talked about what small moments of gesture, speech, light/sound change, or movement might do to communicate key meanings. (These small moments we named, after Kelly Peake’s suggestion, “critical moments” – moments in performance that create a spark, generate learning, provoke something worth pondering further.) Next we held a “scratch” day, playing with ad-hoc performances from Chekhov’s The Seagull, the text set for the first performance workshop. Students were unsure what to do, but the stakes were low: we were just playing, in order to see how student performances might work to make new textual meaning. Then, we watched Simon Stephens’ and Carrie Cracknell’s brilliant A Doll’s House for the Young Vic on Digital Theatre Plus and held a class interview with Hattie Morahan, the whip-smart, gregarious and generous star of that production; we worked on gaining deeper insights into how critical moments on stage are built, and the many ways we might perceive their meanings. And then, just like that, it was time for Performance Workshop #1.

The big day was this past Tuesday, and I have to say it was superb: another exhilarating day for me as a teacher, and a pleasure to watch, especially as students who were not performing communicated the inspiration their peers’ presentations sparked in them. Although in their reflection posts on our class blog the student performers generally talked about the stresses of getting together enough beforehand, of not having enough time over Thanksgiving weekend to prepare, etc, they also talked intelligently and with honest self-reflexivity about what they might do better next time, and how. Sure, some of the performances were more “theatrical” than others, but all demonstrated a level of commitment to the thought work expected of them that impressed me and Madison and generated plenty of healthy class discussion. Students wrote their own scenes, re-imagined Nina as a real seagull (and a male seagull to boot!), and created a retrospective of Irina Arkádina that gave depth, empathy, and warmth to a character we had too easily dismissed in class discussion as self-involved and retrograde. I’m about to turn from this post to preparing the groups’ marks for their work (gang, if you’re reading, they are coming!), and I’m thrilled that I’ll be able to reward these thoughtful student actors for strong and committed and thoughtful performances that genuinely pushed each of them, productively, out of their comfort zones and into a space of new learning.

With gratitude to all y’all in English 3556!


Activating the activists: The Activist Classroom goes to the University of Michigan

Two weeks ago I had the privilege of visiting the University of Michigan, where I gave a talk and a graduate seminar for students working in drama, English literature, and related fields. My talk was about my current research project (“Realism After Neoliberalism”), but my graduate seminar was framed by issues related to the blog. I wanted to take the opportunity afforded by a 90-minute discussion with graduate students I didn’t already know or work with to push at some of the core terms and ideas on which the blog is based, and to get a sense from them of what being “activist” in one’s teaching actually means, might mean, or perhaps should not mean. The students – Phil, Claudia, Charisse, Matt, Ann, Lauren, and a couple of others who wanted to remain anonymous for the purposes of this post – did not disappoint; over the course of the seminar we compared strategies, anxieties, and they helped me to interrogate and even unsettle (in a good way!) some of my core beliefs about activist classrooms.


I organised the session around four “prompts” – questions I posed to the group in succession about a series of related ideas. I offered a prompt, we free-wrote quietly in response to it for about 5 minutes, then we paired up (different pairings each time) and shared our thoughts locally before debriefing as a group and then moving on to the next prompt. This is an extension of thinking/writing exercises I use often in my undergraduate classes, altered here based on the nature of the session, its audience and purposes – talking to junior colleagues who are also beginning teachers.

These were the prompts:

1. What do you aim to do – really do – when you teach?

(This is a “tell me your teaching philosophy” prompt, but it asks you to reflect on your philosophy before you write it down, rather than repeat what you think you should be saying in your teaching portfolio.)

2. What does the word “activism” mean to you? Is it a word with which you identify?

(This question asks you to think about the term in any context that makes sense to you; that context need not be the classroom.)

3. For you, what would be the most important features of an “activist” classroom?

(Here, feel free to reflect on what you think might be activist teaching practice, or conditions for activist learning. Or both.)

4. Do you have concerns about the terms/ideas we’ve been working with today? How might we address these concerns in a productive way in our teaching practice, or in our teaching training?

(The idea of “activist” teaching or learning motivates me, but also carries some potentially troubling connotations. Should teaching be activist? What should the limits of a teacher’s “activism” be? What parameters should we be setting for ourselves? I’m aware here of anxiety in the North American public sphere around “activist” judges, for example. While I tend to sympathise with judicial “activism”, that’s because it often swings my way ideologically. I’m fully aware that my sympathy is a matter of my political perspective and also my cultural privilege – two things my students are absolutely not required to share. What, then, are the risks of activism in my diverse and poly-perspectival classrooms?)

Below is a brief summary, based on notes taken and shared by participant Ann, of three key problems we worked over during our time together.

1. Community.

In relation to my first prompt, several of us wrote separately about the notion of community-building in the classroom. I spend a lot of time working on making my classrooms true communities, partly because the students I teach need to be able to trust one another enough to become vulnerable in performance. Some of the other members of the seminar talked about related problems in English lit or Freshman Comp classrooms: in a space where many students are there simply because the course is required, building a community of learners is both hard and very, very important. Lauren noted one strategy for handling the “compulsory” hot potato: she invited students to reflect, in one late session during a recent course, on why they were there and on whether or not they ought to have been made to take the class. Such an approach is potentially dangerous – they might all gang up on you and tell you it’s rubbish! – but the most likely outcome is the one Lauren experienced: a mix of reactions, including some strong defences of the class, and some strong claims to the contrary. In such a debate, important opinions are shared, lessons learned, and, maybe, communities (or alliances?) born.

Matt helped us to remember that community can be, contrary to some expectations, a radical goal, as each of us belongs to many different communities, and it can be useful to reflect upon how we invest in those communities more, or less, at different moments and in different circumstances. No student is going to invest simply or singularly in their classroom community; rather, they are going to bring their experiences of their multiple, different allegiances to bear on their learning, and on their sharing with peers. That exposure to community experience can then, in the classroom, also be an important exposure to lived, human difference.

2. Risk.

The second and third prompts generated a number of reflections on the challenge of risk in the classroom. I’ve thought a lot about risk over the years – again, partly as a function of teaching drama, theatre, and performance, where students are required to take on a certain level of personal risk in just getting up on stage – but a panel on which I participated at the annual ATHE conference a few years ago helped me to remember that “risk” is a relative concept. It’s pretty easy for me to take risks, because I’ve been doing it my whole career; in fact, as an extroverted university teacher of drama I’ve made a career of taking certain kinds of risks (which makes them far less risky overall, right?). In the classroom, however, risk needs to be managed properly: the stakes can only be so high in order for students to be able to practice taking considered risks (and to practice not taking a risk too far).

Phil shared a terrific exercise: giving students the regular opportunity to assume potentially “risky” roles, like that of classroom leader. As he noted, when you give students the job of running the show, or picking the next topic for discussion and then explaining their choice, they take on responsibility for their peers’ learning; this is a risky role with manageable stakes, and it’s one that allows individual students to demonstrate their strengths and test their limits while also learning what it means to face potentially negative feedback from those (peers and teachers) whose opinions they care about. In turn, I shared some stories about moments in my classrooms when I’ve simply been honest with students about what I’m feeling: exhilarated, exhausted, or confused by what the class is or is not giving me, about what our dynamic seems to be that day (sample question: “guys, what the heck is going on?”). In those moments, I assume a level of risk: I expose myself as a human being to my students. It’s a manageable risk for me, as I’ve done it before, but it reminds students that I’m a member of our shared learning community, and that what we are or are not achieving impacts me affectively and thus personally, too.

3. “I don’t want to say I’m an activist teacher.”

I’m quite sad, in hindsight, that we were rushed in working on our last prompt, because it’s in many ways the most important one, and certainly it is the one I am most interested in right now. During our discussion of our second prompt (what does “activism” mean to me?) I talked about how I’m a bit worried that calling my classroom an “activist” one lets me off the hook. If I spend each class talking the activist talk, I can excuse myself more easily from walking the activist walk. I tend not to join picket lines. I don’t normally attend demonstrations. Unlike a number of my (brave) colleagues, I’ve never been arrested for taking a stand. Am I using “the activist classroom” as a get-out-of-jail-free card?

Matt had strong (and valuable) opinions in response to this question. He noted that one can be both an activist and a teacher, but for him these things are not, indeed cannot, be the same. How can one be an “activist” in the classroom without tacitly aligning oneself with the politics of one’s employer – an employer that might be, as my current employer, Queen Mary University of London, is right now, taking a decidedly conservative, even neoliberal stance on wages and workplace morale? We might use our classrooms to teach students to think like activists – Claudia called her pedagogical practice “activating the activists”, which I like a lot – but that should not be confused with our own practices of activism, practices which need to extend beyond the rarified worlds of university teaching (and university employment). Ann pointed out that the university (that is, the contemporary, generally risk-averse, generally for-profit learning institution) is only interested in supporting student activism up to a point (read here about the recent crackdown on student demonstration at University College London, to cite only one of a growing number of examples). How, then, under the umbrella of these institutions, can we teach students the genuine nitty-gritty of activist practice, including how to protect themselves from its sometimes extreme risks?

Although it was short, this last chunk of our discussion rattled me a bit. Ann, Matt, and the others were right: my classroom might offer regular opportunities to think and talk about the theory and practice of contemporary activism – social, political, artistic, economic, or otherwise – but my job as a teacher is to arm my students with a strong skill set, and that’s it. When I leave my classroom, that’s when my turn comes to put my existing skill set into practice by fighting for what I believe in: fair, living wages for all; a strong and independent arts community; accessible social housing; a government that listens to independent researchers and makes decisions based on the best evidence available in order to support the needs of the greatest number of its constituents. Teaching students about these problems, these urgencies, is part of my labour as a committed and politicised thinker, but it should not, cannot, be all there is to it.