If Critical Reflection Were a Craft, What Would It Look Like?

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In a NY Times interview, sculptor Jack Russell (then director of the Brookfield Craft Center) differentiates craftspeople as those with “a reverence for the materials” as well as
for the techniques and processes used to create a work. ” My touchstone is
that if an object shows respect for both the reality and the spirituality of
the material and the process involved in making it, it’s craft,” he says.

When we discuss writing as a craft, the materials under discussion are words–our own and those of treasured texts, as well as (though perhaps not as much as before) the mark-making instruments we employ.

It seems to me that an arts-integrated writing curriculum would need to pay close attention to our material heritage as writers as well as to the intersections of wordcraft and other art forms. For example, an exploration of illuminated manuscripts seems appropriate, particularly if the curriculum were to extend beyond a single art-experience-as-heuristic sort of writing course and into a multi-course experience that delved deeply into the mutually informing practices and principles of creative genres.

For now, though, I’m trying to wrap my brain around a visual art/writing intersection that I’ll continue to explore with my students this fall: critical reflection. In aesthetic education this is sometimes called mindfulness or it might be bundled with other ways of thinking carefully and critically and repeatedly regarding a subject or object. I’ll continue to call it critical reflection.

In a teaching practice that attempts to make composing processes tangible and visible, the journal or sketchbook is the established way to generate artifacts of critical reflection.

But this can get tricky. On the one hand, we know that reflective writing during the creative process helps students achieve reflection-in-action (Yancey; Schon). On the other hand, art experiences are also intended to give students an experience of the oft-cited “flow”–which by definition is an uninterrupted experience of total involvement in the creative process (Csikszentmihalyi). Kristie Fleckenstein discusses this aim in terms of Ann Berthoff’s “allatonceness” of meaning-making (69). So how do we get this timing right? Yancey has described reflection-in-action as something that can occur after the original text is done, as a kind of dialogue with the recently composed text, especially if it is intended to undergo further revision. In that regard, flow and reflection can be asynchronous. But what if I want my students to experience flow during critical reflection or as critical reflection?

Is it possible that the reflective journal or sketchbook could be the place where craftspersonlike “reverence” is recorded?

Or is that going too far?

Perhaps the goal of the first-semester college writing course should be a sensitivity to and respect for the raw materials of writing–learning their lore as well as how to handle them, preserve them, experiment with them, and how others have done so.

Here’s the question that intrigues me most: in this “guild” of reflective writing, who are our masters and what are their artifacts? Yancey’s Reflection in the Writing Classroom is the most obvious example. She both demonstrates and explains the craft of critical reflection. Then we might look at reflective sketchbooks like these done by art students. But who else and what else and in what other genres?

A few works come to mind, such as Sarah Oblinger‘s altered book, Making What You Say TrueGuy Maddin’s documentary My Winnipeg; Joanne Leonard’s photo memoir Being In Pictures.

Assuming we come up with some relatively objective criteria for identifying works as well-crafted artifacts of critical reflection, how might we examine those other genres and their processes and materials in order to enrich our understanding of critically reflective writing?

Image source: “Awl’s well . . .” by Mr. Greenjeans

Arriving Late to the Fine Arts vs Crafts Debate

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And perhaps it isn’t a debate. Perhaps it’s bigotry or snobbery or antipathy. I dunno. My field is English Studies where we have our own version of all this. Perhaps all disciplines do.

But my position as a relative outsider includes a lack of background reading on the division between “Fine Arts” and other kinds of art (aka Crafts?) which leads me to ask questions like: Why is it that the aesthetic education literature seems so careful to define its work in terms of “Fine Art” rather than “art” and in the process to exclude handicraft genres from the academic curricula aimed at accomplishing aesthetic and imaginative learning?
So far, in my limited explorations of the scholarship, I haven’t come across anyone explicitly arguing that crafts be excluded from aesthetic education curricula but the careful use of the term “Fine Arts” and the omission of handicraft/folk art kinds of examples is consistent. There’s a clear hierarchy here and the default terminology implies that the accepted wisdom assumes the “great works” to be studied would include paintings but not quilts. It’s as loud and clear as the use of “he” as a pronoun in the days before non-sexist language policies . . . or in the days afterward.
Is it really true that kids would learn *less* or less well by studying, say, pottery than sculpture?
Says who?
Maybe Friedrich Schiller, for one. According to Ralph Smith’s handy lit review in Eisner and Day’s Handbook of Research and Policy in Art Education, Schiller’s 18th century aesthetic philosophy specified that the Fine Arts offered the “immortal examples” of a culture’s heritage, and that by studying such Beauty humankind would “[make] his way to Freedom” (164).
I need not summarize the history of the idea that Beauty promotes morality, civilization, and so forth. We get all that. My question is simply why today we continue to claim that Fine Art is where such Beauty is exclusively (or at least primarily) to be found. Lots of Fine Art is not beautiful or Beautiful. Profound, compelling, provocative, but not an instantiation of Beauty–at least not in the way Schiller means here. Some works of [craft] do have this transcendent Beauty. When that occurs, some decide these works merit an extraordinary leap into Fine Art. And yet lots of mediocre work is done in the fields of Fine Art as well . . . there are novices everywhere. So why bother making the distinction at all, particularly with regard to art as an instrument of imaginative learning?
As Smith’s article continues, he summarizes the contributions of Herbert Read and John Dewey, both of whom broaden the range of what is considered relevant art for aesthetic education and emphasize an approach that favors experience over reverence (165-66). These perspectives continue to be valued and acknowledged by art educators, but the fundamental definition of art, particularly within pedagogies incorporating observation-of and response-to art, remains that of Fine Art.
I gather that the genres categorized as “crafts” as opposed to “Fine Art” are genres that produce “functional handicrafts,” which are by definition objects primarily intended to be instrumental rather than imaginative. Weavers produce cloth; needleworkers produce quilts and garments; potters produce vessels for food and drink, as do glassblowers; and so on. In that regard, crafts are artworks not primarily intended to spark or to express complex ideas and therefore such works are less well suited to aesthetic education curricula emphasizing aesthetic criticism, interpretation, and so forth.
And yet . . . of course as a material culture researcher I can’t leave it at that. All objects are embedded with lore, culture, meaning. All objects are worthy subjects of criticism (aesthetic and otherwise). Whether or not a hand-made vessel is intended to express the imagination of its artist, it does so. Granted, I’m the type who would also argue that mass-produced kitsch is worthy of such analysis. So where do we draw the line? I’ll concede the purpose of that line is to point us to works of art that are exceptional instances of human/humanistic endeavor, perhaps also of transcendent beauty, capable of inspiring us to be better people, awakening our imaginations to new possibilities.  In that regard, I would say the Precious Moment figurine is disqualified (though rhetorically and culturally fascinating); also disqualified would be latch-hook rug I created in fourth grade. But somewhere between that latch-hook rug and Henry Moore’s reclining figures lies all sorts of nonfunctional art/craft that is and is not worthy of further study.
I’m troubled by the idea that functional objects might not be considered aesthetically complex and imaginatively advanced. Is this an essentially western assumption? What of wabi sabi? What does it say about our humanistic capacities if we accept that our functional objects are, by definition, too “functional” to be [B]eautiful?  How might such a view limit our perception of other kinds of everyday objects–those found in nature, for example?
I realize such questions have been pursued by others over the years, hopefully with greater insights and more satisfying resolutions. But I must voice them here because otherwise I’m too distracted by my internal monologue to concentrate on the aesthetic education literature before me.
Image source: Grecian Urn by electricinca

Shuttlecraft

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On days when I’m feeling especially scattered I now find myself sneaking off to the weaving room, in much the way that last fall I’d go kayaking to unwind after stressful meetings. In each case I’m seeking a way to untangle a snarled mind.

The shuttles we use are called “boat shuttles”; they’re shaped like kayaks.

The action of weaving, moving the shuttle back and forth across the warp, has not yet become meditative for me. I’m still too aware of each step, each count, each possible glitch. And to the degree that I do “lose myself” a bit I find that it shows up in the cloth. You can trace my thoughts by the weave structure: unpleasant memories appear as tightly constrained versions of my “M’s and O’s” pattern; interludes of contentment yield smoother, rounder O’s and cleaner selvedge–or not.
For a time I thought the pattern might reflect the music on my iPod: I set a Genius mix from Rufus Wainwright’s “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” and got some Cat Stevens, Alanis Morissette, Talking Heads, Rolling Stones, Suzanne Vega, and Radiohead. I expected my beat–my rate of moving the shuttle back and forth, the rhythm and pressure as I beat each row–would match the beat of the music but it didn’t seem to. Instead, it seemed to almost always reflect my stream-of-consciousness, a tapestry weaving itself in its own space and time according to its own teleology.
Kayaks by drurydrama
Image sources: Weaving shuttles by Shiny Red Type; kayaks by Drurydrama

Contemplating Collage

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Later today I’ll meet with my colleagues again to explore the uses of collage–specifically as a heuristic or as a way of doing critical thinking during (as well as through) visual composition–for our upcoming workshop with educators.
I’m still resisting the commonplace: I don’t want this to be simply (yes, yes, I understand it’s never so simple) a metaphorical exercise but instead an activity that draws upon a kind of aesthetic instinct as well as other dimensions of the composing process.
I don’t want to over-talk the exercise and yet somehow I want the participants to experience (within a very short time frame–eek!) a way of exploring ideas that transcends verbal and visual and that culminates in a composition that speaks to them in complex ways over time.
The image above is one of my early experiments. My original plan for the workshop was to have everyone do something very much like this. It’s modeled after Joanne Leonard’s “Hand In” series, which was an exercise in constraints: she challenged herself to complete a series of collages that used a single, simple, repeated image: an outline of one hand in white pencil on black silhouette paper.
I love the basic design: it’s simple but potentially sophisticated (at least, in Leonard’s execution of it!) and for a workshop with mostly novices it seems like a lovely to create something complete and aesthetically pleasing guided by a model in a process that although somewhat imitative yields a work as unique as the hand of the artist outlined on the page as well as her choice of imagery.
But I worried that participants expecting to do collage (a genre associated mostly with masses of images rather than spare ones) might find this approach too limiting, and my colleagues agreed. So today we’ll be exploring with alternative methods, visuals, options. I’m hoping to at least retain the hand symbol as a common constraint.
Beyond all that, though, remains the purpose: how do we communicate that this activity is intended to help us tap into a way of knowing that is aesthetic, cognitive, intellectual, emotional, instinctual?
I’ve been reading more of Maxine Greene’s work on aesthetic education (as part of a course through the Lincoln Center Institute) in which Greene seems also to be struggling to find clear ways to explain, in layman’s terms, what happens when we use art to learn. Her writing style is so fluid and her voice so authoritative that you might not perceive her composition as a “struggle” (and indeed she might not describe herself as “struggling” either) but as her reader, as someone who has thought about this sort of thing for years and is combing through Greene’s writing to find a clearer expression of the academic and rhetorical aims of aesthetic education, I must say that I’m finding lots of lucid explanation that ripples through the subject without yet clarifying it. At least not in the ways I need. She is concerned mainly about art education period: What it means (or really ought to mean), why we should do it, how it works.  My concern is this: how does the process of making and engaging art help us do a better and more interesting job of teaching rhetorical ingenuity: identifying potential sources of insight, locating/mining/interacting with those resources, tapping into one’s own prior knowledge and experience as ways of knowing and not-knowing, determining what kinds of knowing are needed by and for one’s audience/oneself/those beyond who might benefit from your work, plus all that other rhetorical canon stuff (invention, arrangement, style, delivery, memory, taste).
Of course any educated rhetorician can rationalize the use of art to teach composition. What I’m looking for is more information: research data from other disciplines, explanations I haven’t already thought of or read about elsewhere, and also I’m looking for more discussion of the creative process as something novices can authentically do with satisfying outcomes that aren’t purely responses to “real” art done by experts.
But I digress. Sort of. Not really. As I search in Greene for a way to articulate the collage workshop I come across this from her “Notes on Aesthetic Education””

Surely we can learn to articulate more clearly what it is about making
and attending that so often opens up new perspectives, that allows people to
perceive new experiential possibilities, that offers them new symbolic
languages through which to express themselves. Surely, when we are
aesthetically educated, we can break through the either/or [of cognitive vs affective learning]. (19)

So far that’s as close as I’ve come (see what I mean?) to what we’re supposed to be doing with the collage. And perhaps “critical thinking” is too specifically Schonian a term for that process.  I am more comfortable calling it “deliberation.”  I’m hoping that the collage-composition experience will be a deliberative experience in which the participants:

  • Keep their minds open to sources of insight and inspiration from unexpected sorts of artifacts.
  • Approach the collage activity as one of contemplation as well as of creativity.
  • Work with a “believing game” attitude: expecting the process to reveal something to them.
  • Produce something that feels complete and satisfying.
  • Generates an artifact they will want to look at again and again, one that intrigues them and speaks to them in different or nuanced ways over time.

All of that is true of my collage above:
Although my underlying purpose the day I made it was to compose a complex image that in some spoke to myself-concept as a teacher, the images I gathered were chosen rather serendipitously. I ended up cutting the above image from a full-page photograph of a group of masqueraded revellers in Spain from a National Geographic magazine.
I drew my hand-configuration first and selected the image later as one that might lend itself to the composition As I slowly snipped the image and as I shifted it around on the page the activity became a meditation on not only what should go where but why and why not. I made decisions about the positioning of my hand or hands on the page that would ultimately feature the image and whether to keep the reveller’s hand visible; I asked myself about the significance of the masks and about the fact that the mask remaining in my image is really on the top of a reveller’s head rather than on his face. Is that somehow relevant to my self-concept as a teacher? And so on.

Ultimately, I completed an image that I could explain in a variety of ways but, to be honest, I am still listening to what it has to say.
Image source: HB Hessler

Kaleidoscopic Composition

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There are days–most days, actually–when I thank my lucky stars I’m a liberal arts professor. This is how I make my living: thinking and learning and experimenting with ways to help people compose and communicate constructive visions of the world.
If I’ve done my job really well, they compose texts that generate knowledge for themselves and for others. The infrastructure of all this is a process that only partially reveals itself in words–it’s a process of posing questions and exploring possibilities through research and cogitation and putting ideas out in a space or on a page and then translating those ideas into sentences perhaps with images or other media–the intellectual, ethical, and imaginative process itself is a substantial part of what we teach when we teach writing. Students should complete that process with greater insight and more substantial resources and information than they would have achieved without my help. That’s what I mean when I say my job is to help them generate knowledge, not just communicate it. And if they’ve generated knowledge, something meaningful to themselves and others, they’ll be better equipped to compose an artifact that articulates what they’ve learned. At that point it’s my job to be sure they do so with style and precision.
[In teaching as in weaving, at least 50% of the work is preparation, and good or poor preparation reveal themselves in the completed cloth.]
But the raw materials come from finding and mining possibilities. The single question or problem or topic is magnified, narrowed, turned upside down, divided into bits and re-assembled, all to give the researcher-writer-artist an interesting way to approach the project.
This is why I spent yesterday afternoon at a big table with two colleagues, sifting through pictures of yoginis and monarchs and a desert cougar atop a cactus, contemplating collage and metaphor and teaching and writing.
What we’re after is a way to create a short workshop experience that will enable us to share with other teachers the experience of using visual composition to generate insights. This is not a new idea in our field, which is one of our challenges, actually. Our workshop isn’t intended to teach our fellow teachers that using images is a fruitful invention strategy (duh) but instead to foster an experience we can share with the group, who will have assembled at a conference to generate and exchange ideas about teaching and learning.
As we ponder a fresh and relevant approach to this workshop, one of the interesting things we’re working on is the words we use to describe the purpose of the workshop. For example, if we say, “compose a collage that represents you as a teacher” or even “make a visual metaphor that expresses your teaching philosophy” we run the risk of encouraging people to concentrate on the product rather than the process. Each of those instructions sparks an answer, an outcome. A classically structured analogy of [A] in terms of [B].
And that’s not our goal, really. People already know how to do that and do it pretty automatically, which means the generative process is truncated by the wording of the instruction. Granted, even if you have a preliminary idea in mind, the process of visual composition pretty much requires a period of deliberation and reflection (ex: my teaching philosophy is derived from constructivism and emphasizes experimentation and collaboration so I’d want to use images that somehow represent those qualities), the constraints and materials on-hand would lead me to make some decisions and slow down and think in some detail about the various dimensions of my philosophy that might be illuminated by my collage.) But we’re not satisfied with that version of the workshop. We think we can do more.
So what’s more?
For one thing, more = composing an image that moves or that lends itself to a complex or multidimensional interpretation. (Here too a challenge because most smart people can generate multiple interpretations of any image, so what we need to push for is a surprise, I think, an insight or way-of-seeing that comes from the process rather than from pure wit.)
For now, we’ve decided to describe the workshop’s collage *not* as a “metaphor” but as a “complex image” in the hope this will help us all avoid leaping too immediately into a witty [A] as [B] mode (nor a Burkean ironic [A] in terms of [not B] mode 😉
In my own collage experimentation with this project, the image I consider most successful is one I’m still unable to clearly articulate. It’s a tracing of my two hands touching, fingers extended to create a triangle, with a masked character in the center (snipped from a National Geographic story about a masquerade festival in Spain). I like the aesthetics of the collage, and I like the way it resists a simple explanation. I’m not sure whether this is a kind of collage experience others would find meaningful, especially within a short workshop time frame, but I’m still considering what it might suggest or inspire.
Generally speaking, as a learner I’m extremely comfortable with ambiguity. It gives me lots to chew on. Although collage can be a wonderfully rich food for rumination, it’s also such a familiar genre that I think people sometimes overlook its richness or perhaps become overwhelmed by it.
This is one reason I’m very much attracted to the kaleidoscope as a collage vehicle. People are familiar with kaleidoscopes and might take them for granted as toys but if you hand someone a kaleidoscope they’re irresistibly drawn to make multiple images with it. In other words, it’s rare that a person will look through the eyepiece at the image handed to them and then put the scope down. They’re compelled to make their own image–usually again and again.
So let’s think about what’s happening there: the container of “stuff” is the same each time; the image is always different; the person holding the scope is making ephemeral art (I’m carefully avoiding lots of postmodern references and explanations here but go ahead and plug them in if you like) but its components are constantly there for further consideration, albeit from multiple perspectives, generating further ways of seeing; the artwork is inherently collaborative, facilitated by the maker of the scope and the user of it; if you diddle with it long enough (which may only be a few minutes) you’ll encounter some surprises, some combinations or juxtapositions that are beautiful or unexpected.
THAT is what I want my students to experience from research and writing.
THAT is what I want the workshop experience to accomplish.
THAT is my metaphor.
What shall I do about it?
Is the process of composing a collage sufficiently kaleidoscopic?
Image: Hibiscus Kaleidoscope by ifijay