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When have you learned?

October 15, 2021

A quarter of a century ago, I regularly did art.

I refused then to call myself an artist, because it felt pretentious and scary to do so, but also because it implied possessing a craft that I simply didn’t. Instead I embraced (or hid behind, depending on how you look at it) my reading of Michel de Certeau and the arts of the everyday, butressed by Pere Ubu’s embrace of the Art of Walking. The idea that art was in the trajectories we take though an environment that is not of our making and not in our interests, or in the half-assed way we perform tedious tasks, resonated with me in the liberating way that I imagine seeing the Sex Pistols resonated with a lot of the early punk bands. In the art colony I helped found, the Fluxus movement‘s approach to experimenting with art was a guiding light. In this light, painting became an experiment: how do I paint without knowing how to paint? I hoped the finished objects would tell the story of that struggle. Most of them probably didn’t. But along the line, I also picked up a lot more feeling for how paint works. And I had a lot of fun.

I still would not call myself a painter – not least because I haven’t really painted in two decades.

These days, I do have to call myself a teacher: that title (docent) goes with the employment contract. Strangely enough, for most of my years as a teacher, I felt far less comfortable doing it than I ever did painting. Only in very recent years have I felt comfortable enough to experiment. Teaching the introductory Explorations class on the Humanities Honours Programme in Utrecht has been a wonderful opportunity to do just that, as it is meant to allow students to find their own path through the discipline, and set their own learning goals. That framework means teaching and learning are a constant experiment.

Last Tuesday, I ran a teaching experiment that involved making a collective artwork. Inspired by a Fluxus piece I once heard about but have not yet been able to retrace, it involves captioning photos of unknown provenance, and then compiling the captions without the photos. The theme of this week was approaching media in everyday life from the point of view of experience (a phenomenological perspective). So homework for the students was to submit 1-3 photos, without caption or description that embraced some important aspect of their everyday media use. The in-class assignment was to caption the photos of another student. I used student numbers instead of names to try to make this anonymous.

The captions then made what I called a collective poem:

I don’t have much to say about its qualities as a poem (its pecular interrelation of sound and meaning), but there is something to be said for the insights from viewing everyday experience or language in the form of art. Elements we would normally pass over suddenly begin to shimmer and their nature as a network of associations becomes conscious and new associations emerge. Delving into this dynamic was an important part of my intellectual development during my MA in Chicago, particularly in classes with anthropologists James W. Fernandez and Paul Friedrich. (Discussing that in more depth may be a later post). Friedrich distills this thesis neatly in his 1986 book The Language Parallax:

[A]ll natural language is poetic in part. Our concern with this poetry is heightened by a keen awareness of the humdrum, practical, relatively topical and referential of the great mass of actually occurring speech forms of most conversation in our society (p. 23).

There is also something to be gained by thinking of academic work as a collective artwork, in which individual imagination plays an important role. Friedrich again:

The basic idea is that the individual in politics, the scientist in the laboratory, and the poet within a tradition and a subculture are all part of their respective contexts in an interdependency that is symbiotic and reciprocal. Thus the poet is part of a whole, a figure in the great centres of tradition and to his or her contemporaries who write or at least read poetry. But this tradition and these contemporaries impinge upon and contribute to what Stevens called the ‘august imagination’ and the ‘squamous mind’ of the individivual. (p. 2)

So how did the experiment actually work with the students?

Well, all too typically, I did not think through the time practicalities of the experiment as well as I might have. We spent too much time on uploading the images and the logistics of who should comment on whom; I might also have given a better-explained brief for the captions so that I was not doing as much explaining (it was hard, at first, to get them to do something other than offer a bare description). All of this meant that we did not have time to actually sit down and think with the result as we might have. So when a friend on social media responded with interest to the exercise, I replied ‘I’m not entirely sure they learned anything from this one, but it was fun.’ She responded, astutely: ‘Reflecting on individual media use is always worth doing!’ Which is probably true.

But what I ultimately forgot to think about is, ironically, something I routinely ask students to reflect on: not just what you want to learn, but when do you actually learn it? In some cases, learning is a kind of embodying exercise a bit like painting process I described above: you learn as you do, as you go through the motions and get the feeling for how this way of moving and thinking works. It’s not really a conscious process, and there often isn’t an endpoint where you are done. Other learning is more momentary, not unlike the way a poem reveals language, where things fall together and resonate. I find myself often reminding students that that moment often comes only after you’ve finished the exercise. It comes once you’ve set it down, or handed it off, or stepped back to see the whole picture. In cases like that, you need to learn to suspend or defer your desire to see the big picture and trust that going through the process is the point, even if what or the where the end goal are not exactly clear.

This brings me back to doubts about being an artist outlined above. This is the first year where I have had several honours students very worried about how original their topics or interests are. I used to joke about this doubt in myself with the question when do I get my license to think? I’ve found myself having to grasp for resonances from other fields, as Friedrich does above, to explain. In a lot of ways, academic learning is akin to learning a musical instrument or to dancing. You start by playing known tunes and tuning, or dancing along to a choreography or in the style of those around you (the great tradition Friedrich notes above). That’s expected. At the same time, you will learn to feel and experience the music in new ways, you’ll learn new moves, new tunes, new techniques. When will you have learned?

There may be bigger and bigger performances, but you will never be done.

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