What Learning Again Taught Me: Indigenous Studies MOOC with University of Alberta

Previously I wrote about what teaching in these strange times has given me- both as an academic and as a human. And so, it also seems right that I write about what learning at the same time did for me. 12 weeks ago, I started a course with the University of Alberta. And for the last three months I’ve used my Sundays as my ‘back to school time.’ and it’s been a revelation in many ways- both in terms of the vital learning the course provides, but also in a broader way in thinking about how I continue to learn, and to work as an academic (forgive me we can never quite turn that bit of brain off can we?)

Am I as proud of this as my degrees? damn right.

It’s their free course in Native Studies called Indigenous Canada. And really the whole point of this post is to tell you, whoever you are, to sign up. You can do that right here. And while we’re here, you can learn more about the Faculty of Native Studies here or donate to their work here.

The course is a 12-lesson Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) that has been in existence since 2017 and designed to give an introduction to Indigenous experience in Canada. (First thought, British Universities, we need to get on this idea, being massively behind the times until 2020 forced us online…) You can do it in around 21 hours, which is about giving up an hour or so of Netflix or a little less doom scrolling on twitter. In practical terms, it’s 12 lessons covering everything introductions to key topics; from an introduction to Indigenous societies, through to contemporary life, art and activism. It takes around 21 hours with video lectures and weekly quizzes alongside reading. Basically, you can spend an hour or so a week less on Netflix, or doom scrolling Twitter and take part. Alongside the original MOOC for the last 12 weeks every Sunday, there have been live YouTube discussions about the week’s module.

Starting ‘sales pitch’ done. If that’s enough for you, then just click on the above and get going. But if you’re curious what I got out of it, why I’m talking about it…read on.

I also want to put front and centre a thank you to Dr Tracy Bear and Dr Paul Gareau and Sarah Howdle who created the original course and/or worked on providing 12 weeks on invaluable weekly discussions alongside it. Acknowledgement both as busy people giving up their time for that, but also undertaking the time and labour to facilitate people’s learning about Indigenous culture. 

Why start in the first place? partly, as a British person that decolonising is part of my cultural responsibility. Partly, my personal connection to Canada, having lived there, having relatives who still live there. It seemed a logical area to continue my decolonising of my own learning from.  In theory I should have a head start. I have a history degree actually a joint one in American and Canadian Studies degree. But it will probably come as no surprise that my education was lacking in diversity, decolonisation and specifically, given the American/Canadian element, Indigenous history. (McGill, where I did my study abroad, has had an Indigenous Studies programme since 2014 -far later than I was there- and Nottingham, where I did my BA still offers no specific modules on Native Studies at Undergrad level, which is frankly, unacceptable). I can’t fix what I didn’t do then, but I can do the work now. 

And so, when this course crossed my Twitter timeline, despite it being many (ahem) years since my Undergrad degree, I thought it was a good opportunity to fill in those gaps. And I hold myself to account that, righting that gap in my knowledge in any meaningful, detailed way that hadn’t really crossed my mind. 

Why not just read a book? Well why not actually take the opportunity to learn from experts, to learn in a structured way as this course allows me to build a foundation that I can go away and, yes read a book around. But also, the ability to listen to a range of experts talk about these topics, and challenge me as a learner, was also so valuable. So much of what I learned felt vital. And urgently applicable to the world we live in. And also important for me, as someone who works as a writer, as an academic, was finding those parallels of understanding and intersections with my own work, to go forward and work better. To adjust my own world views. Oh and to the slightly snotty attitude I’m sure some academics I know had, let me first say; if you lack the ability to see that all learning is good learning, or ability to see where intersectionality of learning is missing, or the humility to admit to your own gaps in knowledge, you need to maybe consider your place in academia. (Slightly fighty words? Maybe, I’m simultaneously tired of the academy’s bullshit towards BIPOC and other minority areas of research and teaching, and as an unemployed, possibly ‘failed’ academic one with nothing to lose so…fight on).

So, what did doing some structured learning for the first time since, what, 2007? Give me? Firstly, in all honesty, a whole host of Imposter Syndrome. Worried I’d fail a quiz (my dyslexic brain does not enjoy multiple choice!). I would sit there, feeling like a first-year undergrad again frantically trying to get every note down from lectures- I filled two notebooks in this course, frantically worried I’d miss an important point. (even though everything is online, and I can revisit). My personal highlight was frantically scribbling notes on Queer Theory before remembering…I teach Queer Theory. 

That was a silly, funny moment. Born out of my own generally anxious demeanour and perfectionism. But in the broader picture, I did know nothing here and that humility is a good thing. In a valuable lesson Dr Bear highlighted in one of the discussions, is that we all know nothing. And that actually coming at this with that in mind- made me learn in a way that if I just picked up a book and read to ‘tick off’ Indigenous Cultures in my ‘wider learning’ list would never have done. Because learning is a challenge. Especially a course, when as a white person, your sense of the world is going to be challenged, and the way you look at yourself and the country you come from and its impact on the world in the past. (As an aside, most Brits are very aware of the utter mess our country is currently making of things, but that’s another discussion…or is it, says the historian in me…that’s the learning we should all do too). 

But insecurity, and ultimately humility aside the course for me was a combination of becoming excited about vast swathes of learning that opened up cultures and history to me. And the hard learning about confronting that history. The latter is an ongoing and important work. And one that felt supported- and pushed, in a good way, by the weekly live discussions. Forcing us learners to contextualise- often with highly recent events, but also around cultural pasts, legal impacts and how we respond to the world. As a British person I’m conscious of the role my country had in all this, but to hear the ongoing impact is vital for understanding how to support changes being made to try and counter that history.

Alongside this, as someone who is yes, frankly a nerd, the chance to engage in new learning will always be exciting to me. Whether that was finding interesting alignments with Native Perspectives on my own work- of course as writer the elements of storytelling within Indigenous cultures of course sparked my interest. Those ways of educating, of organising, of governing and the way in which I as a writer use storytelling will forever be a fascinating element. And as a Queer person, and someone whose academic work sits in that area too, there was a combination of what I would call more ‘pastoral’ learning moments, when you find parallel with your own lives, lived experience. Particularly in the discussion sessions, the parallels with LGBTQ+ people’s lives came up. But also, in learning about the language, and approaches of Indigenous people to gender and sexuality.

An unexpected, but interesting parallel for me that both gave me insight, but also allowed me to have conversations about Indigenous cultures with someone who would not otherwise have had that conversation was around language and culture. For me as Welsh person, the parallels with loss of language and culture were fascinating. As a country, and particularly my Mother and Grandmother’s generation who lost the Welsh language, through a different kind of colonialism, and its impact on our history, culture and even lives today. The idea that for my Mother and Grandmother’s generation Welsh was- and is considered ‘bad’ or ‘useless’ and my generation’s drive towards using the language and being reinvested in the more ‘lost’ elements of our heritage as a result. A fascinating parallel and a way into discussions that have divided us for years also. But also, one that opened up with my Mum discussions around Colonialism and its impacts. My Mum is a 74-year-old Welsh woman who never went to University, but she already wants to know more about Indigenous perspectives because she never previously got a chance to- she wants to borrow books I’ve brought; she’s asked questions. Without this course neither of us would be doing that. And indirectly that reminded me why learning and teaching are so entwined too.

And of course, as an academic, I have to some degree, a place to have those bigger conversations. Possibly because of the nature of my own research, I’ve always seen academia as an activist tool This course meant more than just the factual learning I did. It was about the inspiration I gained from learning from these frankly brilliant academics whom I would never have encountered without it. Primarily this aspect was from being so inspired by the discussions led by Dr Bear and Dr Gareau and all their colleagues led each Sunday. These on one hand just provided space for conversations not possible in direct ‘teaching’ but also to integrate a wealth of personal experience, current events and everything else. Think what in an ideal world a brilliant seminar or conference paper looks like-except without that one middle aged white guy at the back saying ‘it’s really a comment not a question’ halfway through. Again, what academic discussions feel like they should be. What discussions for facilitating education should be. 

 And I don’t mean it in any sycophantic way when I say; they have exemplified what academia, what being an academic meant to me when I began and inspired me to keep fighting for that. As someone from, who does work on and from a minority perspective (with my additional privileges as a white person) that felt important. It wasn’t the point of the course, but I hope it’s appreciated to say- as I know how little thanks any of us often get, that. It’s actually been a long time since I felt inspired by academics, and on a personal level, this course gave me back that. It made me want to pick that up, in my own area and keep going at a time when it almost felt most futile to.

And to loop back around to the importance of the broader discussions this course facilitated, this discussion needs to also include that a huge part of that facilitating education was also the truly insightful discussion from Dan Levy who facilitated this taking of the discussion online. I’ve left out Levy’s involvement until this point because I wanted to foreground the Indigenous scholars who led the course, and discussions. But it would be remiss not to mention firstly Levy’s role in getting so many people to sign up to and complete the course it’s both an indication of truly using a platform for activism. It is after all one thing to tweet a link to something or donate. It’s quite another to commit to doing a 12-week course, but also to actively put the work in to facilitate further discussion around it week on week. 

Levy’s presence in the discussions did far more than just bring viewers as well- numbers may well matter but what will outlast that is the impact on the quality of the discussion Levy had for those who were listening. I hope it comes across the way I intend when I say to have a non-academic voice in there, someone also just learning this work, reframing their world view, I guess what I’m saying is a ‘normal’ person’s voice. But a highly intelligent, focused voice coming from a place of wanting to learn- and help others to learn, elevated those discussions. I mean basically if all of us could distil all the attributes of the best students and the questions they ask, into one person’s discussion Levy’s questions, contributions are probably what that looks like (how do we make that happen? Next time I’ve got a room of blank faces maybe I’ll also tell students ‘Learn from Dan Levy’s approach to learning’). But what was vital was Levy’s engaged way of discussing the topics from a learner’s perspective, before giving the platform over to the experts to guide everyone listening through. And in a way of leading by example, Levy flipping the difficult elements onto his own worldview, allows those listening to think about doing the same. And we need those ways in, that nudge in the right direction

And you know what, I can hear the eye rolling from anyone who made it this far. The ‘Oh so that’s it- an actor tweets a thing, so you do it that’s so shallow’. Paralleling the academic disdain at being ‘above’ it somehow. Firstly, I say to those people we’ve all bought things we didn’t need because an actor tweeted about them (whether we admit it or not). We’ve all watched truly terrible films or TV shows because of an actor too. Some of us even accidentally became academics because of Gillian Anderson (but that’s another story) and maybe in this instance, I finished this course before I finished Levy’s TV show (sorry…but this is because used it as bribery to meet a book deadline….). But actually, my own wafflings aside on this, there’s no better way to get people to care about something, than someone they care about showing they care. And I think Levy showing all the people who came to the course because he shared it how much he cared about it, kept people engaged, furthered that learning. And that frankly is the most honest use of any kind of ‘platform’ I know of.

Using whatever platform you have for good, for change has to be positive. One key take away from one of the discussions for me was that use of the platform. So that’s what this has been a lot of words to do.  I have an extremely modest platform. But I do have a collection of Twitter followers across academia and theatre who are extremely engaged people, who are looking to make good changes for themselves and the world. So that’s why I wrote this. That’s why I tweeted weekly about my studying. I always say about my writing- academic or creative-if it has an impact on one person, I’ve done my job. So, if one person now signs up to the course, or listens to the discussions, then hopefully I’ve been able to pass this on. 

Again you can do that right here. And while we’re here, once again, you can learn more about the Faculty of Native Studies here or donate to their work here. (Universities are getting budgets slashed left and right and we know where the cuts tend to fall first) 

There’s so much more I could write about this course. From being inspired by Dr Bear’s research, work, to the brilliant outlook from Chris Anderson about Native Studies ‘making simple ideas complex’ to every brilliant guest over 12 weeks of discussions I didn’t have space to talk about here. But this blog is already way too long. So much I learned both in real terms about Indigenous life, that I wouldn’t want to try and paraphrase here, but urge people to go and learn for themselves. Alongside that, the philosophical, political and personal reflections the work gave me have felt so valuable. And I felt inspired too, about the power of supporting people to learn. About the power of activism through whatever ‘academia’ might be. And of being part of a community of learners again. At a time of disconnection, wondering about my personal, professional direction. As I tried to maintain the belief that sharing knowledge as an academic is also important, it’s not too trite a sentiment I hope to say this course inspired me on that level too.

All of this with a huge thank you to the Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta for opening up their virtual doors so we can learn, and a particular thanks once more to Dr Tracy Bear, Dr Paul Gareau and Sarah Howdle and Dan Levy for giving up their personal time to support that learning for so many people. 

(And if anyone wants to start a reading group to hold me to account for my now unfeasibly out of control bookshelf, let’s do that…) 


Pick Me Choose Me Love Me- on writing, on giving up, on kindness.

This was not the blog I planned to put up today. I had another one edited and ready to go. It’s not a blog I have time to write. But it’s one born out of passion and frustration and those are usually the best/worst ones right? 

This really is a blog of two halves; one on the way we treat writers, and others in our industry. And another that’s been bubbling for a while with a question of ‘and what next’. 

Last night I received a rejection from a script submission. That in itself is no big deal- anyone who follows me on Twitter knows my attitude to rejections is openness and a sense of humour. I started a rejection pot this year, where I put £5 in a pot for every rejection, with the idea I can spend that pot on something silly and fun at the end of the year. And for reasons unknown, I started tweeting an Andrew Scott picture for everyone too. Partly to inject a sense of humour- it’s ridiculous the number of rejections we all get, so why not be a bit ridiculous with it. But I share those rejections also to both normalise and high light the rejections. We all know that social media is a highlights reel but also as writers or other creatives it sometimes feels like everyone else is ‘winning’ but for us. So I share the rejections, not for sympathy, yes for a bit of comedy. But also to make people feel less alone when they’re getting them too. 

So the actual rejection wasn’t a big deal. In all honesty, I’d forgotten I’d submitted to this theatre’s open call. It wasn’t like I wrote a specific script, it wasn’t like my hopes were pinned on the opportunity. But three things really galled me. 

  1. The rejection came out at 8.30pm. This is my pet peeve. Schedule rejection emails for office hours. It’s not hard. I personally often work until 9pm too, I was working last night when I got the email. But nobody needs that while they’re watching Bake Off and trying to switch off from the world. It’s about 4 clicks of time to tell even the most basic program to send at 10am. Give people their evenings off especially now when we all work from home and those boundaries are already all but gone. Maybe I’m over-sensitive, maybe other people don’t care. But I think some boundaries on where and when work falls, would do us all some good. 
  2. The email contained the phrase, and I quote ‘We wanted to let you know that your play didn’t make it past the first round.’ again maybe I’m being over-sensitive, but other people’s reactions suggest I’m not alone in thinking; have some tact people. Just do the usual ‘sorry you weren’t successful but thanks for submitting’ making a point that one didn’t get past the first round, in that way is unnecessary. 
  3. Wrapping the above in a call for paying for feedback via a dramaturgy service. Now we all need to hustle right now. But ‘hey your play was PROPER shite but also we can fix it if you pay.’ nah…send that email another day to your mailing list guys. 

And so the first half of this blog is about one thing; kindness. It doesn’t have to be a ‘cut-throat’ industry. Yes, the competition is fierce but we’re humans behind the emails. I get it, I’ve been there. I’ve been a busy administrator. I’ve been a person who wrote grant rejections. I’ve been the person who rejected students, who wrote to them about failing grades. I’m Chair of a theatre company trying to keep going in all this; I get it. 

But I hope, in everything I’ve ever done above I managed to stay human and be kind. In fact, after 2020 that’s all I hope anyone remembers me for, to be honest, that I was a decent kind person in this industry, because in the face of so much brutality and unkindness actually, I’d prefer it rather than just ‘success’. 

And it’s about a power imbalance, right? It’s about theatres ‘up here’ and everyone else ‘down there’ scrambling like some zombie apocalypse to get in the door with the doors slammed and limbs severed on the way in. 

And I just think, as we all try and claw our way back from this year, does it have to be that way? Can we not take time instead to try and foster relationships, and collaborations instead of being ‘us and them’…do we have to make writers feel like they’re lucky to get the time of day instead of appreciating the work they do? Appreciate the actors who spend time preparing for an audition that statistically they know the odds are stacked against them? We can’t totally dismantle the processes overnight (we SHOULD dismantle a lot of them) but maybe we can all try and include a kind word or two. Maybe the few at the top could remember they probably got there with a leg up and a kind supportive word too. 

Because also it’s easy to forget the work that writers- who I speak for here as that’s what I know- do. And we forget the emotional labour, the emotional impact of what we do. The hours sat working on something with a dim hope it’ll be something. But also how much of us we put into it. Our personality, often our experience, our trauma. And we do that gladly because that’s who we are. But the rejections are personal. 

To quote my favourite film ‘What does that even mean it’s not personal it’s business, it’s personal to a lot of people, it’s personal to me.’

We’d do well to remember that. Yes, it’s business, yes it’s not personal in some ways. But my God it really is personal in a lot of others. 

I had to say this. I teach a final playwriting class tonight where I’ll be teaching my students about ‘the industry’ and competitions. And I felt like I couldn’t do that in good conscience without saying that. 

Or without saying this, which has been on my mind for these long months we’ve been at home. 

I miss theatre. I miss theatre so much it hurts, like I’m not being dramatic it physically hurts some days. I long to be back in a theatre. 

But I also wonder if I’m done trying to work in theatre. Trying to write for it. I wonder, have I fallen out of love with it in that way. 

And look, thinking about the above, thinking about how personal writing is, how personal theatre is. Maybe, maybe it’s just a response to the trauma of having our whole industry whipped out from under us overnight. Maybe it’s a self-preservation thing that it’s easier not to want it anymore when nobody knows what, or how it exists either. 

But I also can’t shake a nagging feeling that it’s more than that. After all this, maybe no I don’t have it in me any more. And maybe I just don’t want it any more. And it’s two things right, it’s the fight. The fight to be part of that industry, the ‘want me pick me choose me’ fight (yes, I did just use a Greys Anatomy quote, but that’s all I hear every time I submit for something). But honestly, the words of Meredith Grey’s begging speech to Derek feel like ‘I love you, in a really really big, pretend to like your taste in music, let you eat the last piece of cheesecake, hold a radio over my head outside your window, unfortunate way that makes me hate you, love you. So pick me, choose me, love me.’ how much does that sound like our dysfunctional relationship with theatre? 

Over here begging theatre to love me like Derek Shepherd

The feeling that after all this (you can see me gesturing wildly right) maybe, maybe I don’t have it in me to pick myself up again and do it again. 

And this doesn’t come from a ‘terrible year’ in that respect. I’m really conscious I’ve had a really good year. All things considered obviously. I’m busier than I’ve ever been, I feel like there is hope for making my own work, making my own path, outside of blindly submitting to competitions. But we all go through too the ideas of ‘but is it worth it?’ and ‘what am I doing?’ at times like this I also always hear Mulder in The X Files saying ‘There’s so much more you have to do with your life’ which is a bit dramatic, but hey, that’s theatre. 

But I worry that I’ve fallen out of love with it. And at the same time, in a way this year I’ve fallen back in love with other forms of writing. And that’s ok. I’ve written more words this year than I have, well probably since I was forced to churn out my PhD chapters. And I’ve found a love of writing about things again. There’s a part of me that, if I could do that writing books about things in a sort-of-but-not-quite academic way forever I would. And I love writing articles, I love the journalism side of things and not just to spite my PhD supervisor who called me a journalist as an insult. And getting off the treadmill of theatre reviewing, and getting out of that bubble has made me so excited about what else I can write about in that respect. So maybe, maybe it’s just an evolution. And I’ve written fiction prose. I’ve written silly stories shared in the depths of the internet and some not at all. But I’ve also had comments there that said I’ve moved people and made a difference to them. And ok it’s not a theatre review…but actually, more people have read those stories than might ever see a play of mine. And more to the point what if I’m just better on the page than on the stage (yes I enjoyed that rhyme). Maybe I’m actually not a good playwright, I know I’m a good writer. Maybe I’m just supposed to do something else. 

And that’s it. I don’t have any answers. I don’t have any conclusions. 

I do say, we could all do with being a bit more kind. Because it’s such a personal thing this writing. It’s to quote a terrible children’s book, but whose quote stayed with me ‘to make good art you have to rip out a piece of your soul and not expect to get it back.’

Again, a bit dramatic. But I think when people rip out a bit of their soul and give it to you, then you owe them kindness. 

And if you’re going to rip out a bit of your soul, it should probably be for something you love. 


What Teaching Again Taught Me

This week I finished teaching a 6-week course, I’m in the middle of teaching another 6-week block of another and I’ve had a few ad-hoc workshops around that too. And after what turned out to be an almost full year away from teaching for the first time in a decade, and the general 2020-ness of everything else I realised how important teaching is to me. 

First and foremost let me preface this with a caveat- this is about both general importance of teaching to me and a very specific type of teaching-optional learning for adults. It is not about the frankly astounding and astoundingly difficult job my colleagues in schools and Universities are doing. To my school teacher colleagues; you are heroes as much as our health workers and you deserve 100 times more recognition. To my colleagues in Universities; you deserve better. Honestly, I’ve got nothing more for you, you deserve so much better than what you VCs and the media are giving you, and I see you, I support you. 

Even with the difficulties, the insurmountably ridiculous situation my colleagues in formal education are facing, I think there’s a thing we’d all agree on right now; just how important education is now, more than ever. The times we’re up against socially, politically, personally, education offers us so much in all its forms. And I include myself as a teacher in that also.  

The teaching I have done then, truly has been a highlight of my 2020, but also very much saved my sanity, my sense of purpose. But also gave me so much more than I imagined. 

I didn’t realise how much I missed being able to quite simply, talk about things that matter to me. And I found that difficult at first too, the idea that ‘nobody cares about that’ when I’m about to do a deep dive into something, or find weird links across a variety of things that make sense when I finally get to the point I promise. A year out, and only very occasionally being able to nerd out with friends (or bore my Mother) I had forgotten that is my job when I’m teaching. That people (for the most part) want to listen to that information, they’re here for the detail. I also forgot that the reason we’re here is that I’m an ‘expert’ in the thing I’m teaching (I use quotation marks because my Imposter Syndrome really doesn’t like it when I do otherwise). 

But what I also remembered in teaching is, I have things to say. And things that might be useful, or make a difference, or at least be diverting or occasionally funny to people (have I mentioned my teaching career is really a substitute for one in Stand Up Comedy?). In teaching my LGBTQ+ literature course in particular I realised how much I have to say, which reminded me of my love of research, but also the joy in sharing it. 

It’s no secret I’ve had the confidence knocked out of me time and time again by academia. I frequently call myself a ‘failed academic’ and I kind of stand by that label. I haven’t succeeded by any of the traditional measures of our profession. I haven’t secured a job in a University, I’ve never published in a journal, I haven’t spoken at a conference in four years (after an experience that left me so traumatised I never wanted to go back). I veer between wondering if I’m just not clever enough for that world, or if I’m just really bad at playing their game. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t lost the love for the things that drew me to it- learning and sharing learning. Maybe I’ve just needed to find another way to do it. I first trained as a teacher 10 years ago, that wasn’t the right fit either (and people seem to disregard my teacher training as another failure too…) but I am a good teacher, and I do love it.

And I was nervous about returning to teaching, especially virtually. There were times I didn’t think I could do it. There were days when I had full-blown anxiety attacks before teaching. And every time if anyone could see me the first few minutes before class I’m watching one of my tried and tested ‘calm yourself down’ youtube videos. There’s also an added vulnerability to teaching online. I’m without an armour of my teaching clothes and make up in the same way. But also the physical envirnoment- teaching is more than just the words I’m speaking as we all know, and I’m a drama person, I talk with my hands, with props…sometimes interpretive dance. And inviting people into your home essentially to do it too, is weirdly disarming too ‘don’t judge my books, oh yes that’s a penguin stuff toy, don’t mind the sirens outside it’s all kicking off.’ It throws us all off, it’s all very artificial. But also it felt the most authentic thing I’d done all year. I found myself being really honest about things I loved, didn’t (Normal People, Call Me By Your Name we’re looking at you) and about things I didn’t know. After a while talking from my spare room felt oddly comfortable too.

But returning to teaching, especially now, having lost my job and been forced like many of us to think about what we ‘really want’. What I didn’t want was more of the same way I’d been living, or the same jobs, but having felt like I’d failed at the one thing I loved …I was feeling even more despondent at where that left me. So this timing, this remembering how passionate I am about learning, sharing and just about knowledge. And teaching adults, who want to learn for ‘fun’ really reminded me why I love this. 

I always think I’m a bit of a weirdo to be so passionate about things. To paraphrase something I heard at a conference (back when I used to go to such things) about people who are inclined towards being ‘fans’ of things, they asked the question ‘well what do other people think about’ and I feel that way about being passionate about (and ok nerdy about) the things I’m passionate about, in my research, my teaching, my writing…what DO normal people think about? But I also have this ceaseless desire to share that with people. And I get that not every particular deep dive of nicheness in my head is one that needs to be shared. But then there’s also, the idea that we all bring a particular nicheness to what we do and that’s where the…magic happens? to paraphrase Harper’s final monologue in Angels in America  ‘I saw something only I could see, because of my astonishing ability to see such things’ and without any sense of ego, just that maybe one of these weird intersections of knowledge is worth sharing, either in teaching or elsewhere. 

But teaching adults, who just want to learn for fun, and teaching them in a pandemic, insolation, taught me the value of sharing knowledge. But also the community element of sharing knowledge. For two hours a week we came together and talked about books. It is of course an immense privilege to be able to do that, and of that I’m also mindful. But also, maybe for some of us also a mental health necessity. Either it gave us an escape, something else to think about, or it gave us other people/community for a moment that week, or it gave something to go away and do- read a book, an article, watch a film. Anything really to hang onto in all this. And that felt important too. 

I found myself growing really philosophical more than once. Teaching AIDS literature, for the first time since…all this…teaching Larry Kramer for the first time since his death, I found emotional and difficult, but it felt important to talk about. In my final class predictably I got passionate talking about Angels in America. We talked about travelling to the Bethesda Fountain, and how pilgrimages of literature in the real world mean something. And that felt important right now. I talked about my career and how Angels shaped it and that we all have to be, to quote myself ‘a bit ballsy’ sometimes. I didn’t think my silly stories would have an impact but apparently they did. And finally, as we talked about Angels thinking about where we all are right now, in that moment saying to a group huddled around laptops in their homes, because we can’t be in a classroom sharing this, talking about my favourite Kushner quote ‘there is an ethical obligation to hope’ and reminding everyone, as Angels tells us, that  ‘The world only spins forward’ seemed like an important thing to say, even if only a handful of people are there to hear it. 

And that session reminded me why teaching is so much more than ticking off weeks or texts, or theorists. It’s about coming together and experiencing something. And yes that’s pretentious and full of my own importance, but also, I think it’s true. For this, for my writing classes right now, it’s as much about the act of learning as what we learn. I’m not testing anyone on the books, or their writing, but they’re doing it anyway. And that’s powerful and important. 

And for me as a teacher, and as a person, it came at a time I needed it. Ten years ago I trained as a teacher and it’s never left me. It’s always been what I’m best at. I’ve just never found the right fit for where. This sort of thing seems to be. 

But beyond that, I think like many of us, locked at home, without a job, I’ve struggled with ‘and what now’ that’s bigger than this of course. But that reminder of what I do, what I’m good at, and more importantly what I love through teaching has really saved me this year. My students laugh, and rightly so at the strange tangents my brain takes me, and therefore us on. We would get through a LOT more actual textual analysis if my brain was more…linear. The weird connections I make, or side stories I tell, but I think it’s just because there’s a lot up there…a lot of nonsense for sure but also some useful stuff. All this has made me want to share that again, I have, at last count 3 more book proposal ideas, some random article ideas…and I feel like I’m sort of falling into who I am again. 

More importantly, I can’t wait for a chance to teach again. It’s not ideal, Zoom is very much not the one. I miss being able to properly talk to students. I miss being able to see their reactions properly (Yes, I’m a needy teacher, I need to hear them pity-laugh at my jokes). I miss being in a room with them for sure. But also I will continue to give anyone who wants to learn a chance to however we can. And that helps me just as much them too.

There’s a sister post to this, that I also went back to studying, just a little myself too. And how much that has informed my thinking on teaching, but also on my own ‘journey’ or however we want to put this with my life, my career and all that that entails. That learning deserves its own post for other reasons.

None of this comes with a magic wand of ‘oh great you’re a teacher and a real academic now’ none of it is the solutions to my failed academic problems or my unemployment problems. But I think in these weird times, a reminder of what you’re good at, and what you love, is an important thing. To steal another Angels quote ‘You’ll find, my friend, that what you love, will take you places you never dreamed you’d go’

Putting it out there in this post as a footnote…I’ve had a crazy idea for a while for a series of online lectures/discussions from academics and other experts on…just about anything we can think of, the things we want to nerd out about, and want a platform to do it on, and share with anyone who wants to learn. If you’d want to listen, or want to be part of it…let me know.