An earlier post included a laundry list of things I wanted to achieve through formative and summative assessment instruments in general and with the Critical Incident Questionnaire (CIQ) in particular.
Giacometti Figures in a Room by Vi
For the first time in my arts-immersion experiment I’m experiencing real anxiety. And that fact itself fascinates me.
The class is basic drawing. I’m in week three. It’s been more than 20 years since I sketched-for-teacher. I dread this class.
We work on giant sketch pads. We draw big. The scale overwhelms me. I’ve filled reams of blank pages with words but now words aren’t an option. My job is to draw what I see, to become more skillful at noticing what’s before me and to represent that visual composition with lines. Shapes. To scale.
The first day the instructor taught us “the Giacometti method,” which involves painstakingly marking the relationships between objects in space. It’s a brilliant method, explained much better by the artist on this blog than by me. The method relaxed me somewhat because it requires me to stop attempting to replicate everything before my eyes and instead to choose just one small thing as my starting point, drawing a line to indicate where it is going to exist on my paper. Everything else proceeds from there.
I notice an apple. I ask myself, “How big is that apple going to be on my page?” I mark that. I see a troll doll sitting on the apple and ask myself, “Where does the troll doll touch the apple?” and “How many apples tall is that troll doll?” And so on. I work slowly, sequentially, I forget about whether the thing is art and instead do the work of marking the locations of things.
But I still feel panicky.
Why is that?
Some of it is just ego. I want to be good at this. I don’t need to be the best but I dread being the worst. Why is that? Why does that matter? If the room were filled with professional artists (instead of novices like me) would I still feel the need to be not-the-worst? Yes, I think so. On some level, yes.
But there’s something else too. Noticing is hard work. Much harder and much less fun than I expected. Like doing leg curls at the gym after years of not doing them. Only worse. Like attempting to do chin-ups. I’ve searched my mind for other analogies (like speaking French to a Parisian, like assembling a toy train, like trying to get my Lab to come when called) but honestly the best ones are physical. I find myself commanding a level of coordination and skill that is definitely within me but utterly dormant and resistant and under-prepared. Attempting to materialize what I’m noticing–to make marks on a page (not even drawings, just marks) documenting what I see–is physically and intellectually awkward. It’s challenging me to use a part of myself I haven’t developed. It makes me feel weak and inept and stupid.
Functional illiteracy. That’s also what this is. In the world of words, my world, literacy is about reading and writing, both of which are physical and intellectual activities that demand a type of focus and concentration and imagination that aren’t activated in exactly the same way by any other task. Other activities are comparable, but not the same. I believe this is also true of drawing. Doing it well requires repeated practice, and practice achieves first physical-mental coordination and later a leap into a different dimension of experience. When I read or write fluently I experience “flow,” not sequences of words on the page.
Noticing is also extremely intimate. In terms of sketching, noticing can’t be done superficially. We must look closely and make note of things no matter how inconveniently they are positioned, no matter how uncomfortable they might make us (physically or otherwise), no matter how intimidating they are now or how insignificant they might be tomorrow. In this moment the job is to notice them and nothing else.
Noticing can’t be faked. What you see is what must appear on the page. It will always be an interpretation of sorts, but certain things must be there in order for the image to be complete. To the extent that visual composition parallels verbal composition we might say the artist simply can’t “bullshit” the composition. If fundamental things are missing or sloppy your audience will know. She’ll know, that is, if she also approaches the work with the intention of truly noticing it.
So perhaps that’s what makes sketching so scary: the vast complexity of seeing anything for what it truly is.
Image source: Vi
For several years I’ve using Stephen Brookfield‘s “Critical Incident Questionnaire” (CIQ) in my writing classes to get a clearer perspective on what my students experience in our classroom each week and also to help all of us (my students and me) become more critically reflective, collaborative learners. I’ve been joined in this work by research partners at other institutions and by a variety of predecessors who shared our interest in making this tool work best in their own classrooms and practices. In the language of pedagogical theory, what we’re doing is good ole student-centered constructivist teaching and learning: we view knowledge as something constructed by all those participating in the experience, and the CIQs (and/or portfolios, 1-minute papers, etc.) record that collective process of meaning-making.
Self-reporting successes in terms of X is a time-honored method of assessment at many institutions, especially in the absence of more dependable ways of demonstrating the learning of complex content within a single semester.
So What Do I Want that’s Different?
This is really a two-fold question. What I need is an assessment method that demonstrates the extent to which my students have actually learned what I attempted to teach them. (This is Assessment 101–the thing every teacher everywhere needs.) What I additionally want is an assessment method that helps me do a better job of teaching during the semester, so I can respond to my students’ needs, interests, and inspirations. (This is what that imperfect instrument the CIQ gives me.) And beyond that I also really want some sort of assessment method that helps my students and me learn more mindfully, drill more deeply into the course content that intrigues us most, and to articulate where we are in the process of coming to know better. Furthermore, I want a way to gauge the effectiveness of my pedagogical experimentation. Finally, I want to teach my students to approach research and researched writing (in any chosen discip
line) as a critically reflective and potentially reflexive enterprise.
My short time at the loom is changing the way I experience much of the stuff of everyday living. After my first class it seemed only natural that I would begin to look more closely at textiles: cloth napkins, hand-knotted rugs. I became interested in the way bath towels are made, and found myself wondering who threads the looms in giant factories. Humans. Ultimately everywhere it’s still humans putting things in place before the buttons get pushed. Some things are still very much dependent on small hands. More than we might think.
In Walden Henry David Thoreau says: “A written word is the choicest of relics. It is more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself” (71). Was he thinking at that moment of “written word” as “unit of meaning” or was he considering the word in its entirety–its materiality as script and physical motion and visual rendering as well as its etymology and context and meaning? Surely the latter. Or at least I’d like to think so.
If we approach writing as craft it seems to me there ought to be more time spent on the visual composition of the word–not just as a dimension of document design but as a dimension of wordcraft.
Writing is physical and it is visual and it is tactile. But in college writing classes we attend mostly to verbiage, sometimes to visual rhetoric (though more often as a conceptual approach or as overall document design, and periodically a groovy lecturette on the history of the font, usually in a tech writing class), but not much to the making of the word on the page. The act of [not typing but] writing itself–pen on paper–has become physically painful to those of us who habitually compose at a keyboard. Which is to say pretty much everyone in college. Including the professors. My scrawl verges on illegibility, especially in the wee hours of a grading/response marathon but even on post-it notes.
For some time now it has bothered me that my handwriting has become unstable. I can’t always recognize my own script because it changes from week to week depending my mood and my ligaments and my caffeine-intake. I sometimes wonder what a graphologist would make of it. Would she diagnose me as schizophrenic? Perhaps just always in too much of a hurry with too many different kinds of thoughts and manifestly frustrated by my physical and material limitations. A chronically multi-tasking mind depending on the slow sequential strokes of a pen. At the keyboard I used all ten fingers, creating the illusion of simultaneity. My work sounds more productive. Typed words are sequences of taps. Staccato. Verbal pointillism. Cursive writing enforces legato, continuity, contiguity rather than hyperlink. The difference is disorienting and marvelous.
Digital literacy is essential but if we continue to emphasize its value over that of other technologies (such as the pencil) we become detached from the handicraft of writing. This displacement is unnecessary and seems to be missing an opportunity to experience more of what it means to write. (Does Ong discuss this aspect of technologized literacy? I can’t recall.)
I don’t want to teach penmanship in Composition 1. But I’d very much like to create a space for calligraphy and printmaking and other forms of wordsmithery in a writing curriculum. I’d also like to argue that [creative] writing is a fine art not only because it is imaginative but because it is, in all its dimensions, aesthetically significant.
image source: KRSPO