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When I was in high school, I had (largely) one integrated life.  I did biology, chemistry, and calculus, but also music and theatre.  I dissected sheep brains and cow eyes by day, but played the bass clarinet and performed on stage in front of hundreds by night.  In university, I sat myself down at the end of my first year of undergrad, and succumbed to the false dichotomy of arts vs. science when I decided to pursue biology rather than theatre. (ironically, my reasons for doing so–low wages, poor job security, and constant moving–actually apply to both).

During my PhD, I was running multivariate spatial analyses of climate and avian demography one minute, and performing in lovely spaces in old St. John’s with a wonderful group of friends in Stanley Braxton the next.

Previously, I’ve discussed what science/academia can learn from both radio and theatre.  A recent post by SciCurious wherein they describe leaving academia like being unassimilated from the Borg made me twinge a bit because it rang so true.  In particular, this portion:

3. I don’t know how to take criticism. Or rather, I know how I SHOULD take criticism. I know I do not take it well. This is odd, because I remember a time when I took criticism well. I did a lot of theater and music, it was something you HAD to take well. I took it, I improved, worked harder, fixed things, and did better. Sometime during grad school, however, criticism began to paralyze me. Every critique felt like a critique of me, as a scientist. Since a scientist was what I WAS, all criticism began to feel like criticism of me, as a person. Sometimes it was indeed phrased that way. You are careless. You are not smart enough, why don’t you get this?! You are not focused.

And not that long ago, I stumbled upon a tumblr blog called academickindness, where people submitted tales of good things happening in an academic environment.  My first reaction was something like “oh, this is neat”, but as I continued reading, the stories that were being held up as exceptional examples of kindness would likely be considered ordinary human decency in many other contexts.

Has academia descended into the pits of Hades so much that to be recognized as an exceptionally wonderful person, one just has to avoid being an ass? That, my dear reader, makes me sad.

Academia (and here I use a broader sense to mean not just universities, but the many and varied facets of science scholarship) is a culture built to inflame egos and prey on insecurities.

Quantifying artistic performance

From 1999-2012 I was involved in some way or another with the Canadian Improv Games.  This is probably the most amazing organization I’ve worked with.  High school students from across Canada compete together in a series of events at the regional, and eventually national level.  Like science, improv takes a series of foundational skills, and higher-order integration.  It’s not just “making it up”, but knowing what and how and when to do/say something.  It’s also something we do every single day of our lives.  There’s no script when you wake up in the morning, or go to work, or eat in a restaurant.  Improv is life. Life is improv.  That’s been my motto.  And as an aside, you can see some of the amazing students in this video trailer (yes, it says 2008, and I don’t think the video was ever made, but it epitomized my 13-year experience, and you can check out some of the events in the “Related videos”).

The way an improv tournament runs is that a panel of judges use a rubric to score skills in the various events, and the teams get an overall score each of the four rounds.  After the night of play, they meet for 15-30 minutes with an adjudicator who goes over the four rounds exclusive of the scores to provide feedback, critiques, and praise.  I’ll say that again – the scores are entirely separate from the verbal feedback the students receive.  The focus is on the skills.  The whole philosophy of the Canadian Improv Games minimizes emphasis on the numbers.

For 9 of the years I was involved, it was my job to be one of the judges/adjudicators.  It’s tough work, quantifying art, but I’d fathom that we’ve put more thought into pedagogy and assessment tools than many who teach at the university level*.  After 95% of the adjudications I’ve given, the team comes out energized, buoyant, and they invariably improve the next time I see them on stage. Win.

We used an adjudication technique called “The Sandwich”, which is beneficial for both the teams and adjudicators.  The basic premise is to start and end with positive feedback, with the comments for improvement in the middle.  And even in the “meat” of the sandwich, phrase things positively. “To make this even better next time, I’d suggest …” or “If you worked  little on X using techniques A or B, your next Story Event will be amazing”. More often than not, the teams go away, do A or B, and are subsequently more amazing than they already were.

Think about the last review you received or wrote.  Were there any positive comments?  Was it encouraging?  Or did you need to ‘read between the lines’ to know that when they said “your paper’s been rejected”, that it had actually been accepted?

Once more with feeling

And as an actor myself, every performance (every performance) is followed by “notes”, which is the equivalent of the peer review.  When there’s a director, s/he starts, and we go through the script/show from the top.  What worked, what didn’t, what to do differently, what to keep the same.  It can take an hour or more for a long show.  After every rehearsal.  In our improv shows, we break down each show as soon as the audience has left (or as soon as we head out for dinner afterwards).  We critique each other, going through each piece of the performance.  In any of the hundreds of shows/rehearsals I’ve been in, I have never felt as though it was a critique of my person.  Can you say the same of academia?  I don’t think I can.

So why is this?  Have I just been toiling away in the doldrums of theatre that I haven’t encountered egos and preying on insecurities that I’ve seen in academia?  That might be part of it.  Regardless, the treatment some (many?) experience in the academic environment is horrible.  And it’s pervasive enough that simply being a decent human being is recognized as exceptional.  That ain’t right, dear reader.

Because community norms are a learned aspect of any group, we do things because that’s how a) it was done to us, or b) we see others doing it.  Rarely are academics taught how to write reviews.  We learn from reading our own reviews, or under the tutelage of a single individual (a supervisor).  We see what behaviours are deemed acceptable and can conclude that behaving this way will lead to success.  This isn’t a criticism of that fact – that’s how biology and behaviour work – but when we recognize it, and notice it in our colleagues and ourselves, we can hopefully reflect a bit and think whether it was the best way to act.

The focus in theatre is more long-term, and at least in the Canadian Improv Games, takes an interest in the progress and improvement of the teams.  Academia is much more narrowly focused – this one paper, or that single grant application – that many don’t see the pay-off like I did with teams (and students) I watched over 4 years get better, and better, and better.  Some went on to become successful actors in Toronto, Vancouver, St. John’s, or Chicago.  And that makes me feel good.  I like to think that I had a part, however minuscule, in someone’s success.  When did you last feel this way about a paper you reviewed?  Or a hiring committee you sat on?

I, for one, will try to bring a little more theatre into my science.

*In fact, I persuaded a department to adopt a similar rubric approach to evaluating comprehensive exams, and move away from the pass/fail arbitrary process. 20 years after we did so in the Canadian Improv Games.