pedagogy and study

A series of writings dedicated to things I can’t get out of my head. Oddball ideas and anxieties given time and seriousness.

This spring I will be starting my teaching career at the very school I graduated from a year and a half ago. I will start teaching during a pandemic. I will be turning 27 during the course of my first class. The economic university is gasping for air as the incoming presidential administration *flirts* with the idea of loan forgiveness (of the completely inadequate kind) and the economic and social shifts brought on by a global pandemic—and many of the world’s governments mismanagement of it—continue to show the inadequacies of our current systems.

When I first began art school in 2012, I was most interested in becoming a fashion photographer. Or at least that’s what I continued to tell myself as I took my courses and learned more and more about an art world I had only superficially glanced at during the occasional museum show I would go to on vacations with my family or dad. As the classes continued that first year, the idea that I would be a photographer at all seemed less and less appealing to me. Photography had been a source of inspiration throughout my four years of taking it in high school, but it was becoming clear that photography was a stepping stool. I explored print, sculpture, fibers, drawing, anything that I could try, if only a little bit. What stuck with me most though was something that my 3D design teacher, Kevin Kautenburger, said to me during my second semester, “There are some semesters where I learn more from my students, than they do from me.” Something about that idea stuck with me. In that small moment my entire thought process of where I would sit in the art world shifted. I didn’t just go from commercial photography to a gallery system of art, I jumped into a thinking about art that prioritized this idea that I would one day be a teacher. And it made sense. If I follow my trajectory from undergrad to now, I can track a series of important and influential teachers (both formal and informal) as the only reason I am where I am today. Teachers were and always have been people I consider to be incredibly important. Along with Kevin, there was Mike Meier, Sarah Paul, Mike Chattem, AJ Warnick, Maggie Denk-Leigh, Barry Underwood, Joyce Kessler, Sampada Aranke, Patrick Durgin, Gordon Hall, Jefferson Pinder, Danny Giles, Jacob Koestler, Matt Morris, Mark Jeffery, Lin Hixson, Zak Smoker, Erin Duhigg, Lane Cooper, Dan Tranberg, Christian Wulffen, Kidist Getachew, David Getsy, Joseph Grigely, Conor Stechschulte, Todd Rau, Ayanah Moor, and the list goes on.

This decision to teach occurred very early on in my undergrad experience. I wasn’t very decisive about many things, but of this I was sure. It was my entire impetus for justifying Grad School. Of course, I loved the idea that going back meant I had access to facilities again, but getting a graduate degree also meant I could teach. And now here we are 8 years after my first year of college and I will be teaching in the spring, and I am terrified. But even more than that I am at this juncture in my life fully engaging all of the intricacies, contradictions, and complexities of what it is to be a teacher. In undergrad I was intensely dedicated to my school. There was this idea that whatever problems with the administration or systems in place there were enough good teachers and possibilities that it seemed ridiculous to abandon it, and that I should even defend it. I was always quite stubborn and steadfast, not allowing myself to abandon something if I had started (I only ever dropped one class in undergrad, and it was perhaps the greatest mistake I made). Shift to now and I have become keenly aware not only of the faults of the art school system but of my incredibly tenuous position in a system where the actual acts of study and learning are in defiance of the very system that purports to support these ideals. The only reasonable justification that anyone could possibly find for taking on jobs which are contingent upon enrollment, lacking in adequate healthcare benefits, and able to be taken from you at any moment is—as Fred Moten put it in a talk he gave with Stefano Harney—that’s where the students are.  

Even more than that there is an importance to what one’s theories of teaching are, one’s pedagogy. I would even argue that how we approach our own modes of pedagogy structures how we engage with the world around us. It’s more than just what you do in the classroom. It’s whether or not you believe that people can learn. It’s how you approach conflicts. It’s the methods by which you think teaching is done.

Approximately the mid-1990’s (around when I was born) is when we began to see the educational (or pedagogical) turn in the arts. A shift in focus on what we saw as important within our work. But I would argue that this turn began at least in the 1960s as we saw more and more artists also functioning as teachers, if not earlier with the avant-garde art movements of the early 20th century and the different alternative educational models that sprang up with schools like the Bauhaus and Black Mountain College. To consider art and how we make it and distribute it is a form of pedagogy, and it is integral to the ways we think about art now, and also how we can rethink it.

I’m not thinking of forms and directives here. This is not to champion institutional critique, relational aesthetics, social practice, the performance-lecture, the lecture-performance, or any other manner of definitive dissemination. What I am proposing is a contradiction. A totalizing discourse which defies totalizing discourses. That is to say, it is to think of art in general as a pedagogical mode, from cave paintings to Italian frescoes, monumental sculpture to woven structures, social practice to zombie formalism, Dada to Minimalism to Samizdat to Neo-expressionism to Russian Constructivism to postmodern dance to Net Art. With this idea one approaches works of art in a way that acknowledges what in their obtuseness, their formal qualities, their abstraction, their reference, all of those things which constitute Art’s inherent polysemy and complex discourses as moments of study against that which is dictated to us as necessary. It’s to challenge art historical master narratives of what the trajectory from Athens to now tells us is the role of art at discrete moments in time. It is to see in a work of art not something to be discerned as saying this, but as something which is speaking to us in certain extra-linguistic ways and teaching us in extra-pedagogical ways.

It's to recognize in our ways of reading and seeing art certain biases that get baked into us, from whatever it was that our teachers taught us, and think again. It is to stay curious. Part of this feels almost silly to point out, as if it isn’t already how we think about art. But it also comes from certain problems I saw that arise out of the pedagogical model as it is implemented in art schools and their critiques. A common occurrence one sees is a conversation around a work of art going sideways simply because the group think of the class latched on to a single (and often counterintuitive) thread or because how the artist thought about their work didn’t seem satisfactory to the group so the artist was told where the work should go, instead of giving the path towards where the artist was trying to get. Like a wanderer asking for directions to an unsure place. Only every time they ask for directions they are told exactly where they should go, often in the opposite direction of the wandering. So many questions asked and statements given as if there were correct, definitive, and final answers that we could find here. There is often the line given that there are no “stupid” questions, which I believe is absolute false. Questions themselves are always wandering and should always be answered with more questions. The “stupid” question is the one that is desirous of a concrete answer, not realizing that the concrete answer will only help you sink.

Curiosity is the most important mode here. So much of the school we experience isn’t interested in properly teaching you how to learn, it’s about teaching you how to work. My undergrad thrived off of promising Biomedical and Industrial Design jobs if not illustration, animation, and game making jobs. Yet, the most interesting work came from the students who were curious and broke those molds. The best Industrial Design students took sculpture classes. These economic institutions of higher learning are not interested in study proper because study is “useless”. Study is what makes us radical. It’s what leads us to question the way things are.

Recently I discovered that if you were to do the equation 1+2+3+…+∞= you would get -1/12. This is called the Ramanujan Summation and exists within the field of pure mathematics. It doesn’t have very many uses of which most of what I found were in certain versions of string theory. I can’t really wrap my brain around it, and for many it infuriates them. It’s not useful, except sometimes. But as a concept, as an idea, it’s absolutely beautiful! The notion that within certain ways of doing math one could possibly arrived at a negative number after adding up all positive numbers, even ones we couldn’t fathom, is miraculous and a testament to the oddities of reason. Math is the ultimate failure of the public school system because we are not shown the amazing possibilities inherent within it as a system, we are simply given it as an incontrovertible fact. For example, Edmund Husserl developed phenomenology through his engagement with (among other things) mathematics.

Rethinking what it would mean to consider the implications of our pedagogies on our personal philosophies, our artistic practices, our ethical imperatives is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. What could it mean to think pedagogy and teaching outside of an economic school system that sees study as something to be profited from and not an inherently radical way of being? It is to begin to think through the problems of the academy and its current systems outside of ideas of shared governance and the sharing of administrative tasks. I’m not interested in helping rehabilitate a system that doesn’t consider my livelihood when it asks what the economic impacts of our current crisis are, and what pay cuts and management of money looks like. What I care about is making sure that the students that I will work with in the future learn something from me. I am concerned with the kind of environment I create in my classroom. Will it be creative? Will it be accessible? Will it be anti-racist? Most importantly, will it be somewhere that students want to be?