Finding another Voice

2013-01-12 10.40.15 am

Two years ago today my friend Elaine died of Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS).

For years she was my closest friend in the department. As time passes I find myself missing her more, finding more things we ought to be talking about. Teaching is one of those things.

The Chronicle of Higher Education interviewed her in 2010 for this article and video about her technology-mediated teaching:

Elaine’s experience strengthened my conviction about two things (pertaining to teaching, anyway):

First, that my job as a liberal arts educator is not merely about fostering genteel well-roundedness; rather, it’s about the urgent, essential work of teaching and learning interdisciplinary ingenuity. We don’t have time to wait for other people to be geniuses. We don’t have the luxury of patiently applauding other people seeking creative solutions to complex problems like ALS.

Second, that my best work is done as a catalyst, even though I’m still figuring out how to do it right. Elaine’s teaching method described in the video is in many ways what I hope to achieve through approaches like quadblogging–devoting more of the course to the students’ own processing of knowledge. On one level I’m having them experiment with digital tools because it’s practical and important to their digital literacy; on another level the digital communication projects are far more deeply about tapping into more parts of their brain through multimodal inquiry and reflection and composition. I want them to think and write in 4D, not just 2D or even 3D. I want them to master the art of extracting useful and inspiring knowledge from dense verbal sources (Emerson called this “creative reading,” yes?) as well as from other media, and I want them to generate new, actionable insights for themselves and for the rest of us.

Elaine’s interviewer asks her to share some advice to faculty. She says we should look at ourselves and our practices really honestly, because so much of traditional pedagogy tends to be about performance and even to some extent about ego-gratification. Perhaps what she means is that we’re distracted by our own desire for students to like and admire us–or perhaps we just love hearing ourselves talk about our favorite subjects.

In my teaching I tend to always want students making something or experiencing something. I want them to dig into raw materials and discover things that will delight or intrigue or inspire them. I try to use my speaking time to make sure they know everything we’re doing is on purpose, that a scaffold is in place to increase our odds of finding cool stuff, even though I can’t predict what it will be. It’s a different motivation than the infamous “sage on the stage” mindset but might my approach still be about ego? Yes, in some ways I think so. Because at the end of the day I want them to share my giddy enthusiasm for our work and my inflated sense of personal agency. I want us to cure ALS in Honors Comp 2.

Arriving Late to the Fine Arts vs Crafts Debate


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

Dishcloths and Meaningful Living


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.

But something else is happening to me: I’m asking myself how life might be different if ordinary objects were things I’d made myself. Would I toss my clothes on the floor if I’d hand-loomed the fabric and cut and sewn the garment myself?  Would I darn my socks?
One wall of my weaving classroom is hung with handmade dishcloths in different colors and patterns–model projects for beginners like me. After I complete my sampler I can proceed to design a simple object: a scarf, a purse, a bookmark, a dishcloth. The first time I saw the dishcloths I thought I could imagine nothing more boring and pointless than to devote hours and hours to the weaving of dishtowels. At best, my design would be something I could purchase more cheaply at a store and get a product I wouldn’t be worried about staining and laundering and eventually discarding. And, get real: who “designs” a dishcloth, anyway?
I had to ask myself, though: what might it mean to make something as well as I could, knowing that it would need to withstand a lot of wear and tear?  And what might it mean to use something that deserved to be treated well even as it did my dirty work?
So I will weave dishcloths and vow to use them because doing so will make me a better person. I wonder what else this will teach me.
Image source: luckywhitegirl

On Weaving & On Animating Metaphors


One important dimension of this project is the exploration of rhetorical metaphors not as metaphors but as actions and experiences.
In other words, instead of discussing various ways critics and others have compared writing to, e.g., weaving I’m going to weave.
Why does this matter? Does it matter? Yes, I believe it does. In so many ways. For example, I’ve sometimes used the concept of “warp and weft” to describe the interlacing of ideas, the interdependency of communities, and so forth. But what do I really know about the relationship between warp and weft?
Not much.
So I’m spending the next two months at a local arts center working on a loom. So far I’ve learned that it will take me about as long (or longer) to set up the loom–getting the warp on–as it will to actually weave my first piece of sampler cloth. I’ve also learned that some textile artists intentionally make their warp strings or weft strings more prominent (til now I always viewed the two as equally balanced, visually and otherwise).
Does setting up a loom, putting warp strings and weft strings in place, getting things tangled and wrong and ultimately owning their configuration–does all this enable me to better appreciate the metaphor and the metaphor’s insights into writing (and other matters)? You betcha. But it accomplishes more than that. It gets me working in three dimensions, composing non-verbally or transverbally an altogether different kind of narrative.
Heh. Now I’m using metaphors of writing to explain weaving.
One last thing I discovered this week: people who actually understand the community-as-warp-and-weft metaphor and who are doing something real with that insight. Their organization is called Weave a Real Peace.

Steampunk, Dewey & Schon

Volume 17 of Make magazine has a steampunk theme and the subtitle: “Rediscover Lost Knowledge.”

Steampunk literature is basically science fiction that takes place during the Industrial Revolution (typically in Victorian England or the U.S.), so this volume is basically Jules Verne Meets MacGyver.
This isn’t a literature journal; it’s a “maker” journal, a journal for people who make stuff, usually with technology (old and new). Its sister journal (gendered pun somewhat intended) is Craft, an equally ingenious journal for people who make stuff that’s (mostly) pretty. Both are brilliant artifacts of the Do It Yourself trend. What makes them brilliant is their editorial vision. And the writing. [Making Stuff] contextualized.
Cory Doctorow‘s essay in Make:17 explains the kinship between today’s Makers and those of the Taylorized/Fordized 19th century. His explanation intrigues me because I’m so accustomed to hearing today’s “post-Fordist” workers described as basically continuing to bear the ironic legacy of faceless specialization–one in which most workers are viewed as replaceable (as replaceable as off-shore customer service reps or as adjunct professors of freshman composition).
Our specialization should make us distinctive, no? We become experts at one thing, highly trained, in-demand. And yet in many ways that narrow and specific expertise becomes our undoing.
Hence the value of liberal arts education.

And yet there too specialization breeds replaceability and anonymity for most.

Anyhoo . . .
Doctorow’s essay, “Love the Machine, Hate the Factory” gives us hope. He says steampunk “celebrates the elaborate inventions of the scientifically managed enterprise but imagines those machines coming from individuals who are their own masters”–people who now have the resources to make complex stuff from start to finish, as artisans.
As artisans.
As artists.
What if the arts-integration movement acknowledged artisans as well as “artists” (i.e., those trained in the Fine Arts tradition)?
What if higher education in general took an artisanal approach? Sure, in some ways it does: graduate students dig deep and write much within their discipline. But few experience a true apprenticeship. RA-ships sometimes achieve this; undergraduate research programs attempt to give this experience to some students. Generally speaking, few scholarly apprenticeships or practica  exist. Experiential education, internships, service-learning–these are ways that a discipline’s craft might be experienced. But “craft” isn’t taught much or discussed much outside of programs in (wait for it . . .) the Arts.
In Art as Experience John Dewey says that the product of any given artistic discipline–the dance, the sculpture, the song–is given so much attention that people utterly misunderstand the work as a work. As a process. As the culmination of training and resources and context and experience.
I see that happening in arts-integrated teaching as well.
I also see that happening in most teaching. And in the assessment of teaching.
But this blog isn’t about the old “product versus process” debate (didn’t I sort of write a dissertation on that?) so much as it is about ways of knowing and about my quest to learn more through and about creative work.
Donald Schon, the guru of critically reflective practitioners, found that students often can’t articulate what they’re learning. When required to reflect upon their learning experience in a pilot practicum, many students did not. Schon concluded that perhaps they could not because they hadn’t done it before; they lacked prior experience reflecting on their own learning (Educating 342). I’ve seen this in my own classes as well, where I ask students to write short reflections on their weekly learning experiences. What I’m coming to hypothesize is that while the assessment-and-accountability movement demands increasing verbalization and quantification of learning, we still need non-verbal methods of expressing what’s been learned and what’s being learned.
This gets tricky in a culture that sees only professional art as worthwhile and amateur art as merely arts-and-craftsy kids’ stuff. Unless the DIY movement manages to change that.
I’ve begun making more things as a way to learn more about material rhetoric and about other things that matter to me. I trust the process and I know enough about cognition to recognize that the associative and imaginative connections I’m making are enabling me to learn deeply from this experience. I want to share this experience with my students but must find ways to ensure they value this process themselves when so much around us sends the message that making stuff is just a trendy or busy-work activity that mimics what “real” artists do but that can’t possibly be as real or as intellectually valid as professional work.
What I want the experience to be is transformative, not peripheral or trendy. I want the work to shift my students’ self-concept to that of a Maker, a Creative. Her own master.
Image source: steampunk-space-helmet by Foxtongue

Verum Factum Redux

Vico inserted this frontispiece into the second edition of his New Science as a visual aid to the reader–but perhaps also to himself. He explicates the picture and in doing so offers his introduction to the content of the book, its purpose and structure and assumptions.

Although I'll surely return to this image again, what I'm attempting to do now is simply gather and mark the basic components of and influences upon my work. The intellectual and material readymades I'm choosing to employ as I attempt to do something about this persistent itch to stop musing about material rhetoric and instead make something tangible of it.

I intend to use these sources literally–that is, tangibly as well as conceptually. The objects I'm assembling will contain or feature artifacts that represent or even replicate the symbols, words, illustrations, and principles about which I've been reading and ruminating.

Verum Factum

I’m starting this new blog on my sabbatical. Seems like a good time for a clean slate. 

What I want most from this new space is a place to assemble the not-at-all (yet seemingly so) disparate projects I’ve taken up and set aside during my early career as a professor of writing and rhetoric. 

Not all of them–just the ones that genuinely interest me.

I’m returning to the nagging questions and intriguing ideas that animated my early work as a researcher, and I’m at last committing to the mode of exploration that has been lurking at the margins of my scholarship all along: assemblage art.

Giambattista Vico said you can only truly come to know that which you make yourself. It’s his verum factum principle, making is knowing.

Let’s see what I can make of that.