Designing for Hope University: The Award-Winning Educator Series with Kailin Wright
Jessica Riddell 00:12
Today we are welcoming in our award-winning educator’s series, Dr. Kalin. Wright, who is an incredible force of nature both in the classroom and in her disciplinary fields. You can find her in directing in writing and research in teaching, thinking about social justice, thinking about human connections, thinking about conversations that literally make the world better. As an associate professor at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, she is the Jules Leger scholar. Her newest monograph is called Political Adaptation in Canadian Theatre, and it was published from the McGill Queen's University Press in 2020. In this work, she explores how adaptations transform popular stories for social justice. She has published several articles, a critical edition of Carol Atkins, the God of Gods and has shared her work and mobilized her knowledge in journals such as the theater journal, Canadian literature studies in Canadian literature, Canadian Theatre Review and Theatre Research in Canada. Kailin was awarded the association of Atlantic University's Distinguished Teaching Award, which is the highest recognition in Atlantic Canada for educational leadership and teaching excellence. She also won the institution wide Teaching Award at St. Francis Xavier. She directs plays that have social justice messages for theater in Antigonish, and holds the Tri-Council Shirk grant, (SSHRC?)an insight grant for a new project that she's working on about reproductive justice called No Baby, No Future: Performing Radical Motherhood in Canada. Welcome to this podcast, and thank you so much for sharing your work today.
Kailin Wright 02:10
Thank you so much for having me. I'm so excited to be here.
Jessica Riddell 02:14
We are so excited to have you, and there's so much to dive into and to explore with you. I guess the first question that we like to ask our guests is a very open ended one and probably really difficult for a theater and literature professor, which is tell us your story. How did you get here? Without any cues or directions, what is your story if you were asked to tell it?
Kailin Wright 02:40
Oh, great question. Well, a lot of people don't know this about me, but I actually worked as an occasional teacher when I was an undergrad. I was teaching everything from pre-primary, kindergarten, to high school, while also studying acting, performance, theater, as well as English literature, and just having the toughest time deciding where my best home was. I knew I wanted to do grad school, and I knew I wanted to do a PhD, but I didn't know whether it was going to be in theater or English. I love teaching, it was all the same week that a theater professor and an English professor both suggested that I could do both. So, a theater professor said having this background and working in English literature is proving useful for your theater research. Then, the chair of the English department at the time pointed out that it was pretty unique to be studying acting, with the playwrights that I was researching and writing on. I did my PhD in English, but I wrote my dissertation on Canadian theatre, and I've been trying to keep a foot in both worlds ever since.
Jessica Riddell 03:54
That's amazing. Finding a home is sometimes difficult in the academy itself, right? The university is sometimes exclusive, and hierarchical, and siloed and you moving between and amongst those departments, which seemed for me as a Shakespearean, sometimes so arbitrarily divided. Have you carved out a niche for yourself where you found a home? How do we change those structures to make homes for other people who might fit in strange ways or feel like misfits?
Kailin Wright 04:35
Yes, it is interesting you mentioned Shakespeare in terms of bridging theatre and English, because he really is the one playwright that's celebrated everywhere as also a great English writer and an English literature. I think first with social justice, I really tried to get other voices in my classroom, including students’ voices, but also guest speakers. If COVID is a hurdle, and we can't get someone into the classroom, then there's all these options for these great virtual guest talks. Even now, podcasts or watching video on YouTube of the artists that were studying. I think that's important is to emphasize and practice all together, this act of listening and learning.
Jessica Riddell 15:01
I think that your use of the virtual, of those community guest speakers, and harnessing technology to break those walls open, is something I've learned and I'm taking through the pandemic portal as we move ever closer to a new post COVID world.
Kailin Wright 16:19
Yeah, and as you're speaking to about the COVID context, I think that this is such a great opportunity to talk about the value of liveness, and the live classroom, because my students are so excited now to be able to have that safe space where we can come together in person and learn. It's just a such a great opportunity. So part of what we've been reflecting on, we're talking about modes of storytelling within the relationship to adaptation theory, but then also it is framed by this larger context of being able to learn in-person and why is that so valued? Why are the students so excited to learn in person? What is it about being served this live, medium event that they take so much value from?
Jessica Riddell 17:04
Absolutely, what we took for granted before is now so precious to us. When we do connect, how do we connect, and how do we spend our time together in the most meaningful of ways? I think that that is such a good COVID lesson for us as we think about liveness? I think we've all had a bit of a masterclass on what that looks like, and how to release ourselves from the tyranny of content delivery, with some asynchronous stuff to free up that liveness. You sort of set up a couple of premises for how you would design Hope University, thinking about hope University, not as a bricks and mortar institution, but as a thought experiment in how to unlearn and rewire systems and structures that are broken. My question is, how would we design for something like that? How do we renovate or innovate our institutions, so that they are inclusive, hopeful, resilient systems, so individuals don't have to be that they are socially just and equitable, and inclusive? How do we design for that? What would you do as your first couple of steps?
Kailin Wright 19:40
I think first I would talk to a lot of other people because it would need to be intersectional, diverse, and inclusive. I'd want it to speak to the different meanings in terms of gender, and race and class and sexuality. I think what would be exciting for Hope University, is the fact that the classroom and the university can be, I would hope, very quick to respond. I'm thinking about our conversation just now, about how similar the classroom dynamic is to theatre. I was recently interviewing Susan Coyne, she's a playwright and actor that co-created Slings and Arrows, this great little television series about the Stratford Festival that adapts Shakespeare's Hamlet, every season they put on a different Shakespeare play. She was saying that her favorite thing about theatre is how quickly it can adapt, and making the argument that it can adapt quicker than any other medium than writing, publishing, or television and film, because it's so immediate. I find the same thing in the classroom, one of my favorite classroom experiences is when I was teaching a course, on nation making and remaking through literature, and theatre and art. At the time, there was an election, and debates between Trump and Clinton, and the students were really interested in this. We ended up starting every class by reflecting on what was going on in the world, and what was going on with the debate and the election, then we would get into our theoretical readings and the text for that day. What ended up coming out of the class, one of the most exciting things was an act of research creation, and that would be another big element for me for Hope University, that being an emphasis on research creation.
Jessica Riddell 22:51
I love that because it puts them in positions of producing research, and looking and being curious, gathering and curating, and then having a kind of empowerment that we don't do very well right now. Students sit there and think, okay, I'm going to listen to the expert, I'm going to listen to the authority member, they're going to tell me what I need to do, and then I will reproduce it, and then be assessed by it with a numerical grade. It seems really broken when we value students as the heart of design, it seems very odd when we think about research creation, which would empower them to develop all those critical skills and to disrupt notions of authority and expertise.
Kailin Wright 23:40
Yeah, and with research creation, it's been one of the only moments that I feel like I've successfully been able to break through that grit, the importance of grades, because of that example. They put on the play and finished writing it after the course was done. They put it on for a one-act festival. We all got together, every single person in class was involved in every element of the writing, the creating, putting it on, and I directed it and worked on it with them. This was all after the course, this was for no grade, it really was beyond that grading system, but thinking about the value of what they were learning and creating. Yeah, I hadn't even reflected on that element until just now.
Jessica Riddell 32:15
Congratulations on your 2020 book, on Political Adaptations and Theater, because that is also probably seeds that have been planted and have grown over a long period of time as you work through those ideas in multiple years, in multiple conversations. I was hoping we could talk about that and political adaptation and the role of art in giving us a kind of framework for understanding our own context and, and being able to think differently through representation. I also want to ask you some questions about your new project, that is probably front of mind and still nascent, and in many ways. Do you workshop, your ideas and work them through in classrooms, in your theater productions, in your directing? How are you a sort of percolating on these concepts and workshopping them?
Kailin Wright 33:26
Yes, I'll work through my ideas and research interests in the classroom, on the page and on the stage. I do try and have the work time during the theater to reflect the research interests and questions at that time. The plays that I've directed for Theatre Antigonish have had a real social justice message like This is for you, Anna, which was a piece near and dear to my heart. It is a feminist play, and the year I directed it, I was actually slated to direct a comedy. I was working on feminist adaptations of Greek mythology at the time, and I had students in the classroom coming to me and speaking about experiences of sexual violence. I sat down with the artistic director of Theatre Antigonish, a month before I was going to start rehearsals, and we had a heart to heart and I said, “Look, I really feel the need to stand up with these survivors on campus and use theatre as an engaged and bodied way to perform solidarity and support, and to help amplify these women's stories.” So absolutely, there is this crossover in the classroom and on the page and on the stage. I was looking at and you can it comes out to and what I love about the classroom is how art and how we tell stories cannot just reflect that the world around us and speak to me the political moment, but also how it can help to watch change. And to change the way we think about how a Othello should be staged.
Jessica Riddell 41:45
Yeah, silencing, erasing, totally being disconnected from the female body. I wonder if you could run us through this phrase, “radical motherhood” and how motherhood can be radical? Can you unpack that for us a little bit and sort of attach it to both your research but also the work of embodiment as an educator as a theatre Creator as an artist?
Kailin Wright 42:13
Well, right now I'm looking at acts of motherhood that are treated as acts of failure. So, pressures of mothers and women to reproduce, and yet how there's always this performance or code of failure. There's this line in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, where Offred is describing the feeling of failure after seeing a woman give birth, and how the women are so aware of their deflated laps of not being a mother. So this feeling, and embodiment of failure unless you're actively holding a baby, then considering that in a larger social context, where there's the idea that the only good mothers are dead mothers. I say that in a really weighted way, there is this impossibility of being a good mother. Right now, I'm fascinated by radical performances of bad mothers, how mothers and women are accepting these acts of failure and using them as radical acts.
Jessica Riddell 45:38
Oh my God, there's so many layers of complexity there. Even motherhood in the academy is coded differently, right? There's, there's a kind of erasure or effacement of pregnancy, especially for the young female assistant professor on a tenure track position, who is now you know, probably in them in her 30s. This is my story, right, if it's going to happen, it's probably going to happen now, I was pre tenure. Somehow within the academy I had internalized a bunch of messages, that I should hide and erase this pregnancy and not acknowledge it. In fact, I had an elderly male professor say, when I announced my pregnancy, “we hired her to teach and now she's not going to be in the classroom.” I felt that, and missed a bunch of opportunities to show up embodied in the academy, in my research, in my writing, in my classrooms, and didn't acknowledge this giant pregnant belly in my first pregnancy. Even with students as we were exploring Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, and The Winter's Tale with Hermione, who is eight months pregnant and I have spent a lot of time reflecting on why I didn't feel that it was a safe space for me to show up as a full pregnant body in the academy. I don't know if you've had a similar experience, or if you've been able to unpack why and how those complexities show up just as the world says, “Go and have babies for the future of the world.” The Academy does not ever speak of this.
Kailin Wright 47:32
Yeah, I had a similar experience with my first pregnancy. I kept it a secret for six months, if you can imagine. I remember being at a conference at five months pregnant, and I was just starting to get interested in this current research project on motherhood and on loss, and on the invisibility of it while I was going to such lengths to hide it. I was wearing, the big scarfs, I would go to parties, and I would fill a wineglass with juice, so it looked like I was participating. I went to all these great lengths. In the moment, I felt special, like it was something just for me, but then I realized I was doing this, and I was praising and performing secrecy because we are so afraid of talking about pregnancy loss. That's why we're told not to say anything for the first three months. Women are told not to say anything for three months in a really heavy-handed, threatening way, that if you if you speak out, there's a suggestion that you will some somehow set yourself up for failure. Really, what that fear is, is not wanting to socially, as a community, acknowledge that pregnancy loss does happen, and it happens at an alarming rate. One in five pregnancies, it's very hard to measure because so many pregnancy losses are not reported and happen in private spaces and private moments. Something like one in five pregnancies in Canada end in miscarriage. Yet we are told not to tell people we're pregnant in case we miscarried, so we don't actually have to talk about it, so we don't have to mourn at a time where we share everything on social media, at a time where we seem to be so open so accepting of so many different bodies. There's still this major barrier when it comes to the maternal body and the pregnant body and pregnancy loss.
Jessica Riddell 49:37
I've never thought about it that way. That is so profound that we as a community, cannot sit in grief together. Around that, there's that unspoken and erased bodies not because of the flaw of the mother, but because of the flaw of a community who can't sit in sadness. We see that a lot in this narrative of toxic positivity around motherhood, around COVID. Around going back to normal, like we're wired, for erasing the discomfort that comes along with just being messy, imperfect humans.
Kailin Wright 50:21
Yeah, and that's what troubles me so much about these narratives of the future, they’re almost always predicated on a fertility crisis, because it codes pregnancy loss, or not having a child, in failure. Again, extremely heavy-handed failure, the failure of the world. It ends up becoming really radical to talk about failure, and to pick up that label, to pick up the label of motherhood, and to make it a force to be reckoned with. I went to a talk you gave on the pedagogy of failure that has stuck with me, and that I enjoyed so much, and I think that there's a lot here too, with picking up failure as a feminist act
Jessica Riddell 51:19
Yeah, and thinking about failure, I've been thinking a lot about shame. I was listening to Brene Brown's podcast and her discussion of shame and shame within organizations and social institutions, and what happens when you bake shame into the walls? How does it come out? How does it express itself? She was arguing that shame gets baked into the walls when there is a scarcity model. As in we never have enough of x, y,z, we never have enough money, resources, people, personnel, students, whatever, we never have enough of. It gets internalized as “I am not enough.” We can think about it in university context, but also in many kinds of social institutions where there is scarcity that you internalize and then you bake the shame into the walls and it comes out, it always comes out, it bubbles up in the most toxic of ways because you're perpetuating that shame. One of the ways to disrupt that is to be, as Brené Brown says, awkward, brave, unkind, but to lean into the vulnerability and the failure, and the messiness and the imperfection. Brené Brown talks about awkward, brave, and kind as a radical act that disrupts the shame of the institution. She talks about that daring leadership, to sit in the discomfort, to upscale for difficult conversations, for making space for grief and vulnerability as a way that dismantles shame-based cultures if there are enough people doing it. That just reminded me of the narratives that you're making visible, you're bringing into the conversation that it is radical, to pick up failure and to model it and to say, this is not going to be invisible. This is something we're going to talk about, we're going to have a conversation, and we're going to put light on shame, shame evaporates when it's exposed.
Kailin Wright 54:05
Absolutely, and that's sort of when I was telling that story about being pregnant with my first child and hiding it. Where that story ends, is a month after she's born, and I was walking down the street to an appointment without her. I couldn't help but feel so I felt like a superhero. I just wanted to tell every single person I met that I'm a mother, I have a child, and being so excited about that identity. How do I take a moment and let myself really think about that transformation, and what it means to be a mother and how we can retell those stories of motherhood, and the many different and the leaky stories, the embodied stories, the messy stories, the stories of failure, and embracing being a bad mother?
Jessica Riddell 54:57
Right, saying I'm sorry, my children are not going to do four different kinds of scheduled events. They're not going to be equestrians, and gymnasts, and artists at the age of seven. Sometimes we're just going to sit in our pyjamas and watch movies. What does that look like, how do you model that, and what do you do with the internalized shame and the external shame that that circulates. I love that coming back to the ways in which we build communities and systems, it has to be telling those stories, using our representation, picking up failure, modelling the messiness and the imperfection, in order to change the ways in which our structures are created, and what kinds of forces are exerted upon individuals.
Thinking how different individuals feel it, like my experience of pregnancy, or maybe wanting to have the space, as a young tenure-track professor to not have a child for a while. For some women, it's difficult to, to fight for the right to make a choice, to maybe not have children. For others, it's a choice to be able to have a child, to keep a child. To come back to your point about inclusion, inclusion, and diversity, that's where it comes in.
Jessica Riddell 56:42
It’s so beautiful to think about all of the all of the ways in which you have tied it all back to the ways we self-reflect, and we share, and we create, and we co design, and we look at that through the lense of intersectionality. We disrupt pieces of authority and expertise in old and traditional ways to listen intentionally. I've been writing all of these notes and I’m thinking that at Hope University, we're teaching a course on listening and of course research creation.
Kailin Wright 57:28
Maybe on what hope means, and how not everyone has access to hope. Also, cruel optimism.
Jessica Riddell 57:39
Yeah! So, I've got I've got a course curriculum, run by you, Chief Creator of all thing’s theatre. I do think that theater needs to be on the curriculum, because it asks us to embody other perspectives and voices in a kind of radical act of empathy, which is also deeply brave and vulnerable. It allows us to look through different lenses and to create worlds together that allow us to think and transform. It models all the kinds of ways in which we think about a three-dimensional space that is more inclusive, that is more joyful, that is more embodied. That doesn't happen with a singular narrator or voiceover, it happens in conversation, it happens between and amongst humans in space. I'm just so pleased that you could join us, and so impressed by your work and your awards, and your commitment to showing up in those spaces and sitting alongside humans and being willing to transform. I just am so grateful to you and for you, so thank you for joining us today.
Kailin Wright 59:27
Thank you so much, it’s so great to sit here and talk to you about all these wonderful big ideas.