Kaleidoscopic Composition


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

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