TEACHING AS FIRST SOCIAL PRACTICE
As an educator I am consistently tasked with reflecting on my teaching practice. This reflection frequently takes the shape of a written statement. Below you will find two teaching statements written at two important--yet distinct--moments in my career. The first was written in the midst of completing my PhD at Penn State after having taught at the Chicago Public Schools for nearly a decade. The second statement was written when I applied and received tenure at the University of Illinois. I later submitted that essay to the Texas Art Education Association's journal TRENDS and--with some minor edits--it was published in their 2018 Fall issue. Both statements share the same heart and motivation, but they are written from distinct perspectives addressing different theoretical and practical concerns. I've decided not to reconcile these separate statements into one definitive statement. I don't want the older statement (and its particular sentiment) to be erased. Instead I present the two statements near each other to highlight the course of my pedagogy and to archive the blindspots in my thinking, which--curiously enough--reveal themselves as generative as time passes.
TEACHING STATEMENT #1 (2008, State College, PA)
Although often in the middle I would like to avoid being the center.
In the summer of 1958 the experimental composer John Cage proposed a course to be taught at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Upon finding out that no students had signed up for his course he declared that he would not teach any course at the college that summer. Presumably bound by some kind of contract, even if it was just a commitment of professional courtesy, Cage showed up to Black Mountain with the intention of attending all of the meals held in the college’s communal dining hall that summer. Sitting amongst the students he would have conversations with them. They talked about music and other things while merely being together. My favorite thing about John Cage was/is his pedagogical presence. I think of his "way of being" and his writing often.
An hour before lunch, while in fourth grade, my classmates and I would be dismissed from our main teacher's classroom and walked across the hall for our daily phonics lessons. At Jane Addams Elementary, Mrs. Dorothy taught us word parts: roots, prefixes, and suffixes. I learned that “-graph” meant write and that auto meant self; bio was life, sub meant under, pre meant before, re meant again. Seeing an “-i-n-g” at the end of a word implied an action; the suffix “-er” was one who, as in one who works or one who liberates, and “-logy”, very usefully referred to the study of. In one of these word roots was the seed to the kind of teacher I strive to be. Buried in the “C” booklet was the prefix “com” which shared it’s meaning with the slightly shorter “co” and it means with or together. Despite the contemporary connotations of the word “commercial”, which actually finds its root in the very noble notion of trade, “com” offers us a litany of other words from which to build a teaching philosophy from. By way of this prefix we get –among many other words:
Combine (of which -bine means two).
Companion (of which -panion derives from the Latin pan or bread).
Commune and common (of which –mune and -mon are from the Latin moenias, meaning duty).
Comfort (of which -fort means strength).
Complete (-plete meaning full from which we also get plenty and plenitude).
Compassion (of which passion, of course, means suffering).
And one of my favorites, Complex (of which –plex refers to a sort of braiding or twining, from which we also derive our word part -ply which means fold; as in the world multi-ply who’s corollary is manifold).
In our home live six individuals. This can be rough. We rub up against each other. I sleep well from 11 pm to 6 am. At six, Mateo who is 4 leaves his bed and lies between my wife and I. At 6:30, as the sun paints our morning bed-dance, Lucia who is 2 comes and occupies the space to the right of my wife on the edge of the bed. At 7 –the sun fully illuminating our pile of legs, breath, and and bedhead – Lucas (our 6 year old) dragging his plush toy buffalo nestles at the foot of the bed warming our toes. During this ritual of awakening, everyone’s eyes remain closed attempting to stave off the work that awaits us. At 7:15, Jorge the first born, blankets his body over all of ours –his four-foot-long, fifty pound presence finishing up our morning's first arrangement. One of the first things I learned--and believed--about teaching I learned from the Bible.
In the book of admonitions -- Ecclesiastes -- we find a popular dictum for relationality:
Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up. Again, if two lie together, then they have heat: but how can one be warm alone? And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; and a threefold [or a manifold] cord is not quickly broken.
Sometimes things don’t go the way one plans. This seems to be the natural operation of diversity. One thing grows or bumps into another and things often fail. Failure is not always a “teachable moment” sometimes its just failure, just like death is just death. But in the same manner life is also just life and hence in its mereness it is much less difficult than it needs to be. Devoid of difficulty doesn’t make it absent of complexity, after all complexity just means that it is made of many different parts; it contains multiple sides. Difficult (dif =pull away + ficult, from facile meaning ease), however is the “pulling away” from ease (or calm), from comfort (or strength), from pleasure (or enjoyment), all of which seems to put the responsibility of life on the individuals living it. Education is for life – of this there is no doubt. Yet our primary qualifier for education often is rigor, a.k.a. difficulty. For me, give me one other person and give us a sandwich and a drink that we can split and I’ll show you a progressive education that has existed since the original "tree of knowledge" was picked.
When I’ve asked different children who go to school, "what their favorite subject is", jokingly many of them have responded: “lunch.” Given meal-time's learning potentiality, I’m drawn to agree with them.
My teaching is informed by Conceptual Art. By subverting the expectations of traditional art forms, Conceptual artists foreground the ideas they are attempting to communicate in their work. A notoriously famous example of Conceptual art is when an artist challenged the tradition of finely crafted porcelain sculpture by attempting to exhibit a factory-made, tersely autographed, ceramic men’s urinal as a sculpture. His irreverent gesture highlighted and challenged the art world’s preoccupation with craft, beauty, and authorship. Another example is when a composer wrote a piece of music that was made up completely of silent notes, culminating in a four minute and thirty-three second performance of ambient sounds coming mostly from an irate Classical music audience. This artist was proposing the idea that everyday sounds could be admired as much as musical sounds. A third, more recent example, sees an empty podium with a microphone guarded by two members of the Cuban police. The public was then invited to say whatever they wished at the lectern for one minute and many of the participants made political statements. After the minute passed, the guards forcibly removed the impromptu protestors even if they had not finished their statements. Although some of the speakers were dragged away from the podium as they shouted their inflammatory complaints, the protestors were not punished for their words. In this case, the artist—who is also Cuban—was presenting the physical elements of a soapbox, without the usual negative consequences of this type of politicized action under an oppressive government. Through this staged action, the artist presents us with the idea that art—due to its flexibility and occasional absurdity—can minimize the apparent threat of certain actions, which otherwise are deemed alarming.
I have used the above examples of Conceptual Art to initiate conversations with my students about the nature and potential of art, but I have also used the subversive attitudes of these artists to think about how I can make pliable the traditions of teaching in order to get to a more profound level of engagement with my students. I have learned through Conceptual art that the initial surprise of an unusual experience can lead to critical thinking, discussion, and wide opportunities for self-motivated learning. A viewer might ask about Conceptual Art, “Why did the artist do that?” or “How is this art?”. Conversely, a student in one of my classes might ask, “Why does my teacher do it this way?” or “Is this teaching?”.
This moment of questioning triggered by a confrontation with an unusual form is essential to my pedagogy and curriculum. I give considerable thought to the formal elements of every pedagogical and curricular decision I make because I think of my teaching as a Conceptual artwork. With the initial thought that every student, in every class, in every semester is unique, I approach teaching with the same curiosity and penchant for experimentation that I do my Conceptual art practice. For example, I don’t do introductions and logistics with my students on the first day of class. We jump right in and make something together. Although this first activity involves some movement and collaboration on behalf of all the students, it is not an icebreaker; rather it serves as an activity that we constantly refer back to during the rest of the semester in order to think about how we generate ideas, workshop our thinking, and evaluate our own work. At the end of the first session, I hand out something that looks like a syllabus and tell the students that they need to read it carefully and come prepared to discuss it during the second session. At home the student is then surprised with the fact that they did not receive a syllabus, but instead have been given a very long letter to read. The letter addresses some of the important logistics of the course, but only after I propose a specific tone for the semester. I tell the story of the course: How I’ve conceptualized it, what its history is, where the course fits in the context of the art education major’s curriculum, and how I’ve been thinking about it in terms of those particular students at that particular time. Through this inviting letter, I encourage the student to collaborate with me in the construction and trajectory of the course. This letter is a plea—if you will—to embolden students to substitute “going through the motions” of school with a more fully invested, personal quest to become truly educated. By substituting education for mere schooling, my students recognize that learning is a means by which the world is made legible, reinterpreted and ultimately contributed to. This letter-as-syllabus has many movable parts and many tentative proposals. With the students, I make modifications to the course’s plan of action and calendar as needed. The whole endeavor of bringing the students into the design of their own curriculum can be taxing and unwieldy for me, but through my pursuit of a Conceptual art model, I am encouraged to see how serious every student takes the responsibility of their decisions and contributions and how their choices affect their classmates and their professor.
Throughout the semester, every other pedagogical decision I make carries the same motivation I have when designing my first day of class and my syllabus. I don’t perform assessment for grading’s sake. I have conversations with my students about their goals, their intentions, their accomplishments, and my role in helping them achieve those things. I usually don’t implement curriculum linearly; I believe in and pursue an “emergent” curriculum. An emergent curriculum, or what some teachers call a “lived curriculum” arises from the needs, interests, and proposals of every learner in the room. This curriculum is situated within the lived experiences of, both student and teacher, and through it we aim to disperse the responsibility of the teaching and the learning that happens when we are together. Our emergent curriculum allows for everyone’s expertise to be highlighted, while everyone’s “blind spots” are carefully nourished and attended to. I don’t lecture authoritatively; instead I guide and point, recounting stories from my twenty years of artistic and teaching experience—all the while—positioning my story as one of the “voices” that we could be listening to. The other “voices’ that make up our curriculum are brought to the class by both the students and me and include the voices of the cannon and the margin. I don’t assign reading for the usual reasons; I ask my students to look at the form of the texts they examine, to perform their readings aloud, to read slowly regardless of comprehension or completion, and to “collect”, highlight, or write down all the parts that make sense—in any way whatsoever—to them. This way of reading sometimes produces a set of student notes where the students has copied down sentences they don’t readily comprehend. The student may have isolated these sentences for some other reason, such as: They just liked the way the sentence sounded or they were intrigued by the way the words visually “sat” on the page. The point is to engage the text and trust the fact that learning is cumulative, collaborative, and takes place over a period of time that frequently surpasses the boundaries of a singular semester and the encounter with a single teacher. When I give a homework assignment, it is usually meant to be unpredictable, sometimes causing me to modify my expectations of the assignment. Although some parameters are given with each assignment, many of the outcomes are not predetermined. I am frequently surprised by how the students complete their homework, oftentimes with surprising results!
No element of my pedagogical presence at the University of Illinois is left under-considered. Not even my office hours. Although I am regularly in my office and my students are made aware that I have an open-door policy and will meet with them by-appointment, I also hold office hours in a manner that aims to disrupt the obligatory nature of the professor as “available”. I have opened up my office as a library and study collection called the Jorge Lucero Study Collection. The Study Collection is opened weekly for for quiet perusal of my books, videos, and ephemera, as well as to be used as an informal meeting space with or without me. I have also opened up my office during my lunch hour for a project I’ve labeled Split-My-Lunch, where I’ve welcomed the Art + Design community, especially the students, to share a free one-on-one meal with me. These two projects have provided immeasurable pedagogical opportunities where I have been able to introduce students and colleagues to new scholars, artists, and authors related to their own research and work. I have also on several occasions during Split-My-Lunch met students who were not even in my classes and provided impromptu career and academic counseling, philosophical conversation, and artistic critique. Most importantly, by opening the doors of my office through this unusual—albeit ubiquitous—gesture I have foregrounded the idea that school is life not just a preparation for life. This idea is something I always want to teach.
The purposeful modification of traditional pedagogical forms—although playful—is one of the most serious things I do as a teacher, as a scholar, and as an artist. In the midst of this University, I too exist as a learner and always depend on the expertise of my students and colleagues, asking them to prioritize their “voice” and bring forth what they know as we pursue knowledge together. My teaching as Conceptual Art practice is a considered attempt to dismantle the hierarchies of schooling at every turn by deemphasizing grades, institutional power, verticality in learning, and tradition. These moves are made, not as an outright rebellion, but as a measured contemplation of the status quo in an attempt to return or awaken each students’ ownership of their intellectual development and their scholarly maturation.
Most of these formal experiments I enact through my pedagogy are initially jarring to my students and that is why I also leave my actions open for scrutiny and conversation. This openness to criticality—even of my methods—has led to countless fruitful and candid conversations with my students (and colleagues), which consistently lead us to collectively rethink our positions and approaches. Our thinking about what we do together—here at the University of Illinois—is made dynamic by our willingness to be transformed and I am grateful that this University has proven itself an enormous community dedicated to this principle. The conversation that emerges in the classroom from what appears to be radical pedagogy to the students is vital for developing inquiry and learning in both the students and me. Because it is the students themselves asking, “why” and “how”, then whatever answers they arrive to are retained as personal discoveries. Whether or not these discoveries are unique or original is irrelevant; what counts is that the students have found, manufactured, or synthesized their own learning, through their own exploration, grounded in their constantly evolving perspective of the world. I’m happy to play a small part in the students’ traversal through that experience.
Since I am a teacher of future teachers, this method of playing with my pedagogy through Conceptual Art has allowed me—not only to deliver the content of my courses in a manner that deeply resonates with my students—but also, my methods present a formal model of teaching that radicalizes what my students think teaching should look like and therefore my method is simultaneously presented as content for my students to learn from. In order for this overlapping “form” and “content” of teaching to be experienced as both pedagogy and as curriculum, students and I must suspended what we think we know about “school”. My graduate students, my undergraduates, and myself continue to grapple with the internal conflict between the comfort we have come to know as life-long-schoolers and our desire to have a genuine experience with professional development, personal renewal, and sincere community. I imagine that this internal conflict is similar to the sensation that comfortable early Twentieth Century art lovers had when they first heard about Duchamp’s urinal sculpture, or established mid-twentieth century concertgoers had when they thought they were hearing nothing during John Cage’s 4’33; and maybe the same visceral reaction current consumers of entertainment have to ephemeral artworks such as Tania Bruguera’s political podium piece. But I will also trust that the reverberations of these Conceptual artworks over time and their role in altering something as seemingly immovable as art itself can be attempted through teaching philosophy and practice that is unabashedly eager to stumble towards something yet to be discovered.
revised May 12, 2016