Thursday, January 15, 2009

Go on - take the pebble from my hand, Grasshopper

When I was reaching the end of my formal education (K-12, undergraduate, grad school, grad school again – 24 years of schoolin’ and they put you on the day shift) I had an epiphany. As I was working on my dissertation I began to disagree with my advisor on the direction of the material. Now, this was a woman I had studied with for 7 years – 3 as an MFA student and then 4 more at the PhD level. We knew each other quite well. I realized at that point that I didn’t need her anymore. She had taught me well – taught me to question, to think, to wrestle with complex issues. The byproduct of this is that I began to question her, to think about other things, to wrestle with other questions. I kept thinking about that scene in Kung Fu where the old, blind teacher challenges the young student to take the pebble from his hand. It dawned on me that it is not about swiftness, or skill, or muscle, but will. The act of taking this pebble is a way of saying – “thank you – I am done now – you have taught me well – goodbye.”

This is not to say that this metaphorical rock (metaphysical? metatarsal?) meant I was done learning. In fact, this was probably when I became most aware of how much more I had to learn. The action of leaving just meant that now I knew how to do it on my own – I no longer needed a guide. Everyone reaches these points at different times and in different ways. Some people are born this way – naturally curious, others never get to this point or even want to. The world is a big big place with room for many voices. To perpetuate the Eastern metaphor (as opposed to a Western one – more binaries) – it is impossible for me to imagine a Zen master telling a student – “OK you are all done – go be Zen.” Our educational system was established on arbitrary divisions of learning – grades, levels, graduations. Who is to say when the learning is complete – the teacher, state, student?

But this does make me wonder about the digital kids growing up who swim – un-guided or peer guided though the amazing amount of information online. The curious ones get it – they carve a path through this material on their own. This may not be what the state or even parents deem “good learning” but it is learning – and a process that can be adapted to other areas. This is Roy Pea’s distinction between learners as inventors – that recraft their environment - as opposed to learners as receivers (more binaries).

I once had a teacher - I think 6th grade - that wanted to take us all to the library and give us a week to research whatever we wanted. To do what we can now do online - start with an idea we are excited by and chase down links and connections and other ideas. It never happened - deemed as not a good educational choice. But in retrospect - this is where real learning happens not in the classroom. It can start there as a resource or guide, but it is when someone gets interested or excited by an idea that the process of learning about it is based on curiosity, on desire, on interest not merely because there is a test on it or it may lead to a job or a degree. This is what I finally understood and knew I didn't need a formal structure anymore. We are lucky - we can actually do this with this class.

I have a quote on my office door by the visual/conceptual artist Asgar Jorn. He says: “The direct transfer of artistic gifts is impossible; artistic adaptation takes place through a series of contradictory phases: stupefaction – wonder – imitation – rejection – experience – possession.” Now – this may be an odd quote to pin up at an arts school. I mean, isn’t that why you are here – for the transference of artistic gifts? Or possibly is it the transference of artistic process? Wonder – Rejection –Possession are crucial steps. To own the training, to make it truly yours, you have to be able to take the pebble. You have to be able to place everything you have learned into question – put it to the test. At least this is what I have found. Surely others have discovered the opposite (more binaries).

Is this fair of me to say to students who are still in this process, not on the “other side” like I am? Maybe, maybe not. Am I no longer a student? Impossible. My previous post listed many of my teachers – most of whom I am not done with yet. If intelligence is distributed then I have as much to learn from you as you from me. I think this is why I tossed Bran the ball today. Not as a glib answer to a valid question, but as a way of trying to say – you don’t need to ask me these questions. Here’s the pebble – do with it what you will.

Now, in some respects this may be license to slack off, not pay attention in class, not do the reading and not take the projects seriously. Life is full of choices. Bob and probably disagree on this (part of the beauty of having two teachers – I suppose to avoid the binary we needed at least three) but I feel that to be engaged or not is your choice – I get paid either way. I can’t imagine why someone would sign up for this type of class – pay for this type of class - simply to look for a place to sleep – I mean aren’t there more comfortable environments in which to take a nap? In the end none of the projects, the readings, the discussions are about what I want as a teacher. We are naming tons of people. This is not meant to be intimidating (though I can see how it could be – but we won’t be testing you on them – so don’t worry.) but to suggest places to go for your own work. Again (and again and again) – if something catches your ear you don’t know about – ASK! This conversation has already included elements brought to class by students that Bob nor I would never dream of including. The beauty of this class is that all of this material can be raw material – can be a nurse log, can be pieces we use to assemble a discussion, can be the active process of distributed intelligence in which you are inventers not receivers.

1 comment:

  1. I guess I tend to think out loud on the topic of teaching, but the truth is I have lots of questions and only one answer --which is that questioning myself at a teacher is good.