This morning . . .
This morning my husband points to a TV news story about a little girl who survives a fatal car crash and walks off, barefoot in the snow, to escape. I pull over a chair to watch an interview with the police officer—a pregnant woman—who arrived later on the scene and noticed the baby shoes and tippie-cup in the car and realized that there must be a child somewhere.
It is Tempting to Believe
It is tempting to believe that this child is what was in danger of being ignored. But, in fact, she was chosen, out of thousands of stories, to reach a national news audience, bringing with her messages about what it is to be female, to be lucky, to be mothered, to be saved. As a teacher, perhaps I help students piece together things the detectives miss—how meaning is communicated, beyond fundamental signification, in a variety of media, through a myriad choices, and how power and visuality become related in our lives. Whether we are watching the news, viewing a film, visiting a museum, surfing the Internet, or glancing at 5,000+ ads per day, we are following the scene—the baby’s shoes, the rattle, and the cup—into cultural consciousness.
In the process of study, we as media-makers, students, and teachers are also thinking about our own cultural production, what we want to communicate and how—consciously, ethically, effectively, experimentally. Teaching media arts, visual culture, and writing, with degrees in both Visual Art and English, I hope students will find new ways to combine technology, art, language, and theory: to work beyond conventional limits, poach other academic domains, push technologies, mutate across knowledges; and in the middle of it all, to discover the individual voice and artistic process—the center with respect to which everything spins out and comes back. It is the only thing we know when we’re sitting at the conference table with a new client or standing behind a camera to shoot a film.
Creating Learning Environments
My work as a teacher is to create an environment that makes this kind of investigation possible. I am intensely interested in the individual and in process, how each student approaches creativity and critical thinking, and how personal experiences shape and reshape worldview and creative/critical practice. I want to create new immersive experiences that help students confront their own preconceptions and shape new perspectives as they read and navigate theories (often purposefully conflicting ones) to develop their own ideas.
This is why, for example, my students take a field trip to observe a nudist camp while reading about power dynamics of the gaze. Spending just an hour on the grounds, most students report that they experience an awakening, a new understanding of cultural constructions of the body and how commercial forces leverage conventions of representation, of "nakedness" and "the nude," of body shame and display. In comparison to a community that does not automatically sexualize the body, shame it, and treat it as an object of display and exploitation, mainstream conventions become visible to students rather than transparent.
Vexing, Pleasurable, Enigmatic
Life experiences—vexing, pleasurable, enigmatic—are intellectual and artistic engines. I need to know about my students' lives, the experiences they are bringing to class. The more they share—through their journals, discussion boards, class discussions, etc.—the more we can learn from them. New immersive experiences we explore as a class then become inspiration for testing ideas—and shaping new ones as foundations for media-making, research, art, writing, journalism. Foucault embarked on his intellectual life's journeys in epistemology for personal reasons. Each of us has a story to tell, passions to tap, unique insights to offer, precisely because we have unique embodied life experiences.
My challenge is to reach all my students individually and guide them to tap their insights. I require students to meet with me outside of class every semester (in some classes multiple times), because I've found nothing can really replace one-on-one mentorship, even if it comes in brief sessions. It is a challenge to make strong personal connections with every student every semester; some bonds become more stirring than others. I also want students to connect with their classmates through group work and recognize what research bears out: that creative process is largely about interaction, brainstorming, feedback; that group learning is more powerful than "lecture."
"Why is this racist?"
Students should feel open to talk about their ideas at all stages and express their opinions, their prejudices, their fears—because this is the only way we can really understand our own hubris, whether it's our own racism/sexism/classism/out-grouping or it's just the assumption that we even know what knowledge is.
I ask students to share their ideas with the class, in all stages, whether it's brainstorming and planning projects, thinking through readings, or commenting on a current event, so that “public learning” can take place: we can be part of each other's struggles and inquiries, rather than merely functioning as an audience for a finished product and critique.
While I research, use and teach many electronic technologies with fluency and have taught/designed online courses for many institutions, I believe it's possible to become fixated on "technology in the classroom" for technology's sake. Use of digital tools should be an outgrowth of need. While I personally find it useful to lead classroom presentations with high-tech materials and engage students in creating blogs, websites, discussion boards, and wikis, other teachers have accomplished as respectable or better outcomes and engagement using no electronic tools whatsoever. The body is an instrument, and artists (all teachers among them) choose their media. Some are sculptors, painters, daincers, actors; others are new media artists, etc. The medium does not determine the quality of the work.
I do find some technologies facilitate learning well in my classes. For example, I create many online videos of lectures and tutorials for students to review outside of class, and they consistently rate these highly for their learning. Discussion boards provide students with an outlet for their initial responses to difficult or emotionally stimulating readings. Students will often reveal more about themselves in online class forums than they will in class, so we often start on discussion boards and continue dialogue in class. Lore.com is an excellent online critique tool (like Facebook for visual critiques). Wikis can be useful ways for groups to share their work and teachers to track individual contributions. YouTube is a warehouse of educational materials. I'm constantly researching new technologies to see if a need can be addressed through them.
Although I provide written instructions and grading rubrics for each assignment so that expectations are clear, students have a great deal of room to shape every assignment and “take ownership of it.” I then collect student work samples and create showcases for exemplary students work.
For example, I might ask students to research a historical event or political issue of their choice, write a paper, and create a website about it. But this is not so easy. In the process, I want them to think, not only about why they have chosen a particular topic and how and why it will be represented interactively, but also what constitutes an “event," how we structure history and narratives, how we craft persuasion, what it means to describe or explain, what voices, perspectives, and linksmight become part of a new telling of this story, what permissions will be needed or not needed, what ethical considerations need to be made.
Example: Media Arts
When students are asked to develop entrepreneurial ideas, corporate I.D., and package designs for new organic food or non-toxic personal care products, they must research not only these markets and competitors, but also the politics and science behind them, and make strategic choices about the businesses they would want to start. Then they must think critically to rationalize each creative choice.
Students shape their writing topics based on their personal interests and work through the many steps of the writing process, learning that good writing is primarily about rewriting. My average time grading a 3-page paper is 35 minutes. While some schools of thought espouse sparse feedback to writing, so as not to stifle student creativity and to allow teachers to manage large class sizes, I believe feedback is important to learning and students generally say they have not had enough of it in their educational lives. Furthermore, they need it at critical moments--in brainstorming and drafts as well as final product--whether they are emailing at 3 a.m., texting throughout the day, Skyping me on a weekend, or coming to my office with questions. Then, I find most students need opportunities to revise after the grade because they have handed in a draft rather than understanding the rigors of crafting a final draft. Revising is where much of the learning process happens.
Creating an Audience
"Would you like to publish your writing?" "Do you want to start this business?" "Do you want to exhibit your art?" Ultimately, media art and writing are motivated by real or potentially real audiences--rather than merely a grade. So, part of my work is to seek or develop venues, internships, community outreach opportunities, and independent studies for student work. Most recently I worked with students and colleagues to develop Splice Journal (www.splicejournal.org), an online showcase of our students' work in the arts, media, and culture. I've also developed countless classroom publications over the years, such as WordVisions and hard-copy publications, and I mentor students who work with my own clients in media arts, such as social media and graphics. My scholarly work usually invovles students who voluntarily become interested through class as well.
A Radical Obligation
With tenure perhaps comes the obligation to be working far enough on the edges of culture to need protection. Arguably, it's easy to cross that edge, given the comparative control high schools have over the teaching latitudes of their faculty. If universities are to remain places of free thinking (and, maybe even more importantly, challenged critical thinking), then we must earn the trust of our students to take them to uncomfortable places, and the respect of our colleagues earned by doing challenging work. My belief in these principles, along with a long lineage of family edicators, fuels my endless passion for working with students. The greatest educators want to transform lives, and my students continually transform mine.
Great teachers shaped my own learning experiences. They were role models, leaders, respected scholars--integrated in their communities, passionately engaged with their fields, sincerely connected with their students, and wholly committed to the standards they knew we could achieve. I hope that I am able to reflect even a glimpse of these qualities in my own teaching practice.
See also Why I Chose Vermont College for my MFA.