Dr. Lynn Fels on Performative Inquiry, Arts for Social Change, and Mentorship

December 09, 2019

Professor at Simon Fraser University in the Faculty of Education, Dr. Lynn Fels’ research addresses arts for social change, performative inquiry, arts across the curriculum, and inquiry through performative writing. Lynn is co-editor with Mo Korchinski, Ruth Elwood Martin, and Carl Leggo of Arresting Hope and the forthcoming Releasing Hope, collections of writings by women who have been formerly incarcerated, and those who walk alongside, re-imagining new ways of engagement and support within and outside the prison gates. Lynn is also co-editor of Exploring Curriculum: Performative Inquiry, Role Drama and Learning (available here for purchase) and author of Living Together: Unmarried Couples in Canada. As a co-investigator for the ASC! Art for Social Change research project (2013-2019), Lynn is passionate about enabling communities of learners to collaboratively address social issues by engaging in creative, arts-based processes. She has recently received a SSHRC Insight Development grant for her research in Performing Mentorship: Investigating Mentorship in 4 Arts for Social Change Contexts (2019 – 2021).

What called you to the work of arts and education?

My love for theatre began in childhood. In Grade 1, my teacher cast me as Miss Polly-Put-The-Kettle-On in our Christmas play. In grade 7, I played Hamlet and afterwards, our teacher, Miss Owens, took our entire class to see Romeo and Juliet in Stratford, Ontario by train from Quebec City. When it came time to go to university, I couldn’t bear the thought of sitting in lecture halls for hours. That led me to a BA (Honours) in Theatre Arts at Queens University, and then subsequently to Vancouver to study Teacher Education at the University of British Columbia. At the end the program I realized, it doesn’t matter what side of the desk you are on you are still waiting for the bell to ring. I was young then and wanted to explore the world. My children brought me back to education and theatre. I began storytelling and creating plays with groups of children. I became curious about the learning that arrives through engaging with children through theatre. So I decided to return to UBC to explore the question, what happens when you bring storytelling and drama into a science classroom?  

What was your first encounter with performative inquiry?

Early in my research at UBC, while looking for a research methodology, I realized that I had my methodology all along: inquiring through the arts. At the time, arts as inquiry was on the cusp of being conceptualized and articulated as educational research in the academy. I arrived when methodology in educational research was being questioned, explored, and re-imagined in new and exciting ways. My thesis turned into the conceptualization and articulation of performative inquiry, as a way of doing research. Performative inquiry is an invitation to us, as researchers and educators, to be wide-awake to stop moments or what I now call “moments that tug on your sleeve” that come into being as we perform and/or are performed—on stage, in the classroom, in relationship with each other and the environments within which we find ourselves, individually and collectively. Performative inquiy embodies a pedagogical sensibilitity. Performative inquiry along with embodied inquiry, poetic inquiry, a/r/tography, among other ways of being in inquiry through the arts, offer educational researchers a new paradigm of research in addition to quantitative or qualitative research.

After my defense, I became a member of the Centre for the Study of Curriculum and Instruction at UBC, and taught several courses, including one on performative inquiry. I worked with Drs. Karen Meyer and Munir Vellani, with others to revive Educational Insights as an on-line open access journal for emergent and established scholars. Educational Insights (www.educationalinsights.ca) became a space where we interrupted conventional academic representation and standard ways of knowledge dissemination. We asked, what happens when you bring data into performative spaces on-line? For example, we replaced long scrolling text with images, videos, links and audio. Educational Insights was one of the first academic on-line journals, and we pushed the envelop with the technology at the time. Educational Insights was an early publisher of scholars working in poetic inquiry, métissage, and a/r/tography.

Can you tell us about your work with the Arts for Social Change project?

I was one of several co-investigators across Canada to work with Judith Marcuse (principal investigator) on the ASC! Art for Social Change research project (2013-2018), which sought to better understand arts for social change in Canada. We investigated key issues around teaching and learning, evaluation, and partnerships. We interviewed artists who had spent their careers working with underserved communities and asked them what they thought was important to conserve as arts for social changes morphs into the future (https://icasc.ca/artists-speak). It was exciting to learn about this vibrant community. Our final report wrapped up in early November. 

How did your most recently funded project on Performing Mentorship emerge?

Mentorship was one of the key themes that became prominent in our ASC! Art for Social Change project. I witnessed how new and established artists developed relationships of support with one another. I realized that young emergent scholars were mentoring up, and had just as much (if not more) perspective, experience, and insight as the more established artist scholars. I began to re-think the notion of mentorship as top-down and how power is embedded in the language of the mentee-mentor relationship. The focus of the project is to explore how mentorship is performed in creative spaces. I am grateful to Dr. Ching-Chui Lin, Research Facilitator at the Research Hub, for her guidance in writing our successful Insight Development Grant (2019-2021).

Who have been some of your mentors throughout your career?

Thanks for this opportunity to acknowledge the mentors who have inspired me throughout my career: From Miss Owens, who cast me as Hamlet to the children and students who taught and continue you to teach me how performance is a relational space of learning. During my time at the University of British Columbia, Drs. Karen Meyer, Carl Leggo, Brent Davis, Patrick Verriour, and Rita Irwin were willing to say yes to different ways of being present in the academy, through their own work (living inquiry, poetic inquiry, complexity theory as education, drama education, and a/r/tography), and in their support of my research, performative inquiry, while Drs. Celeste Snowber (embodied inquiry and site-specific exploration) and Vicki Kelly (Indigenous knowing, ethics, and practices) inspire me here at Simon Fraser University.

To visit Lynn’s website and learn more about performative inquiry: http://performativeinquiry.ca/