I’m getting deeper into bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress. Not deeper as in further along; but deeper into what she can teach us about Critical Digital Pedagogy. I separate her personal experience, her personal struggles which are hers alone, from her methodology and thought processes, which can serve a practical function. I think of the words of Matsuo Basho, a 17th century Japanese poet who wrote, Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought. Indeed. What does she seek? A pedagogical strategy that affirms (students’) presence, their right to speak, in multiple ways on diverse topics. The humility to allow her students to teach her. To work with the passion of experience, the passion of remembrance. I take away from this a commitment to engagement.
I teach an introduction to art class. I’ve taught it for 6 years, on 3 platforms: F2F, DHTV, and online. Because it’s a general ed course, I get students from all disciplines. Because it’s CSUDH, I get a broad spectrum of students. Most have had no exposure to art. When I created - and continue to tweak - the class, I wanted to demystify the experience of art.
One of the ways I demystify the experience of art is with weekly assignments. I emphasize experience, not rote. I divide the course into two parts. The first part runs through the midterm. I call it Descriptive Vocabulary. We cover Themes, Visual Elements, Principles of Design and the Materials of Art. In it, students learn the language of art. (I devote the second part of the course into what I call Functional Art History, the way that art’s purpose changes over time).
One of the weekly assignments is called Let’s Take a Walk. I call it that because that’s what I want students to do - take a walk over, into, around a work of art using nothing but their eyes. (The experience of visual art, I explain, begins with the eyes.) Don’t prejudge it. Look first. Then relate. Then evaluate.
I post an image of a painting, a drawing, a sculpture, a work of architecture. I ask the students to respond to it, in whatever way moves them. Some write poems; some write short stories (Imagine such a narrative that combines vampires and Claude Monet’s Impression: Sunrise!). Most of the students write of their journey with the work (Van Gogh's Starry Night: I’m first drawn to the swirling lines of the clouds in the night sky punctuated by pinpricks of light. It’s like walking out of a bar at closing time (A student’s account; not mine). It’s like the sky is alive and speaking to me, and so on). The only requirement is to engage with the work, describe what they see and then - key point- relate it to something in their life. I tell them there is no wrong response; only their response. (I point that out multiple times in the syllabus, as well). Their response, I say, will differ from that of other students because each student brings different life experiences to their Walk. That’s why art is said to be open-ended.
In the first few weeks of class, students lack a Descriptive Vocabulary (such as color, line, shape, texture, rhythm, emphasis and subordination). They still respond with always-surprising, spot-on assessments of formal elements, even if they don’t know their actual names. More to the point, they respond with evocative and perceptive experiences, heartfelt, sincere, and uniquely theirs. In my introductory lecture, I tell them they know a lot more about art than they think they do.
I emphasize that I don’t expect a perfect Walk (as if that exists in the first place). What I want instead is their own Walk, one that documents their own unique journey. By the second week, students are no longer intimidated by Art with a capital A. It’s something to experience. They don’t have to like it, I tell them. I do hope that they’ll at least give it a chance, to appreciate it, whether it’s cave paintings or work from the 21st century.
The engagement continues. Each week I post an Announcement called Weekly Awesomeness. In it I share ten responses to the same Walk or thought questions I call Questions of the Day. I introduce it by showing the range of responses that artworks or thought questions about art elicit. Invariably there will be an exceptional response. I mean, truly exceptional. I share that as A Very Cool Walk or A Very Cool Question of the Day. Finally, each time I grade an assignment (240 - 360 per week) I follow my assessment of their submission with something I call My Take. In it I respond to the same Question of the Day or Let’s Take a Walk as they do. I don’t hesitate to thank a student for giving me new insight into a thought problem (I never thought of it that way before) or Walk (I’ll never look at it the same way again.) I continue to remind students that the purpose of these shares is to show how art means whatever they bring to it. How we can learn from each other. More than anything else, these shares are what students note in their PTEs.
bell hooks spends a lot of Essentialism and Experience fighting the good fight. She takes umbrage at Essentialist strategies that only target marginalized groups, that espouse totalizing truths. I’m more interested in what she has to teach about teaching. Be humble. Be inclusive. Be engaged. Teach from a position of passionate experience, of passionate remembrance.