October 30, 2011

On teaching


There’s a joke I often make about teaching.

Something like: I hate teaching. I hate the students. I just want to punch them in their smug little faces over and over again. But I am led to believe that this is not within the boundaries of acceptable pedagogy.

It always gets a laugh. Its not particularly funny. People laugh because the sentiment is both inappropriate and (more than?) a little bit true. Here we arrive at our first lesson: teaching is not generally considered to be a matter of violence. Except when it is.

When I wonder about my own motivations: in teaching, in life, in art – I always find it most comforting to attribute my actions to the basest motives. That I do these things only for money, ego or (most gloriously) for absolutely no reason at all.

It feels better to think I am doing something for a bad reason than to say I would like to do something for a good reason. For me this is very close to the idea of pedagogy.

The honest desire that I want things to change, that I want my actions to effect the changes I desire, seems ridiculous to me.

I was at an art opening, standing around with a group of artists, all artists whose work I admire.

One of them started complaining about teaching, about the workload and the level of the students. About how draining it was. Everyone joined in, and suddenly I wasn’t standing around with a group of artists, I was standing around with a group of teachers.

Despite all evidence to the contrary, I continue to have a fairly romantic view of artists, while I have a remarkably unromantic view of teachers. (My father was a teacher.) And in the moment when the switch happened, when the people I was surrounded by flipped from artists to teachers, it was a bit like the entire world unraveled.

If artists are teachers, then what are artists?

I felt certain that the motives of each of us in the circle, our motives for teaching, were mainly connected to money, to the desire to make a living. (I probably teach the least of the group, which sadly made me feel just a little superior.) I felt our teaching had nothing to do with the dissemination of knowledge or with any sort of genuine caring for the students. But why did I think this? What evidence did I have? Was I only projecting my cynicism onto those around me or could I actually say something in support of my theory?

When one is standing in from of a classroom there is an incredible pressure to perform.




Stephen said...

The piece state "unfinished". But so for so LAME, if I may punch you in the face. What a lame cliche' persepective of teaching you have...so far in your article anyway....maybe there's a kicker coming. Hope so. I am an artist who teaches, by no means full or even half time but consistantly and I all ways find it invigorating.
I learn. I do research. I get stuff. And the students do too a great deal of time and that feels pretty damn good.

Leigh Gillam said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Leigh Gillam said...

thanks for this. there are plenty of teachers i have had who seem very confident they have been providing necessary information to their students without ever checking into the real needs of these students. precious time is eaten up to over effort and disconnection. it is hard with large numbers of students. i don't think it is that hard to share and learn if there is a constant give and take - a constant checking in - like a conversation.

i am unsure if schools rely on student debt, but i worry if they do. it would be more difficult as a teacher at the front of a room a part of a system that relies on this, and many students watching the performance - taking notes etc...the disengaged somewhat dutiful ones along with the die hards, if they are afraid of failing what they have wagered in the uncertain future of debt. it makes clear motivations slippery to untangle. is there enough room for every art student who takes on debt to pay it off through teaching? - if teaching is the only way when art fails?

(there must be some that finish school without a debt due to grants and family support as well as extra curricular jobs ect... i imagine some luckies teach as a respectable way to make a living.)

although i cannot deny enjoying informative lectures and performances by passionate teachers, i am concerned. if teaching depends on maintaining the status quo in order to allow for more teachers, the flow of knowledge and art seems to be able to function outside the limits of institutions or at least with one foot outside, an aspect of teaching is cruel. to not concern oneself is to not check, to not be critical, to accept selfish and competitive aims unchecked and volatile.

Anonymous said...

mr. wren. your problem is your romantic view of the artist. face the evidence. accept the evidence. believing in that romantic ideal is a little like still believing in the 'noble savage'. it does not serve artist well, or with any sense of reality. And this really isn't the time, economically, to be looking down on people, artists or otherwise, for attempting to climb out of debt, pay rent, and feed themselves.

"If artists are teachers, then what are artists?"

If you look at history, artists have been teaching art in some form for a very long time. They are not mutually exclusive categories...but maybe you think they are because of your unchecked idealism. Artists teach not only in the class room, but through the art they produce. We can learn from art just as much as be enamored or disgusted by it.

If this group of artist you were surrounded by started talking about family, babies, or a new record or recipe they enjoyed, would you feel they had just become a bunch of regular old human beings, instead of rigorously maintaining their 'artist' identity.

you gotta be more fleixble jacob.

Jacob Wren said...

I think if they had been talking about 'family, babies or a recipe they enjoyed' I would have been equally disgusted.

But if they had been talking about a new record I might have been interested.

This is all, of course, extremely unreasonable and arbitrary.

I can be flexible but I'm also searching for the pleasure of writing things that are unreasonable. It seems insane to me that I still have a romantic view of artists, since I see no evidence to support such a view, but it remains a desire. A desire for art to be something more (or violently less) than everything I see around me.

And, reading the comments again, I realize again that my humour is often too black, slight or dry, and people miss that the words I write are both meant and not, that fI eel my views as painful but can also see them (and myself) as ridiculous. (I mean, I've never punched anyone in my life.)

I am flexible. Which means I know just how boring being flexible can sometimes be.