FEATURED IMAGE BY DAMON DAVIS, MULTI-MEDIA ARTIST, @damondavis
TEACHER REFLECTION. QUARTER 1.
CURATING THE ARTIST-WITHIN
I imagine the classroom as a drama of pedagogy. This drama of pedagogy happens on the stage of life and representation. The stage of life is the period of realized spacetime that I, as a teacher, share with my students. It is a momentary stage, a stage that we are all role-playing in, a stage that extends into the shared moments of the classroom and beyond wherein I imagine teaching as a performance and living as an artform. Here the audience – whether knowingly or unknowingly – are not understood as a separate but equal participants on this stage of life, but rather they are understood as being entangled with me, with each other, with the world around them, locked into a shared spatial moment. Thus, in the classroom, from within this stage of life, we engage in the drama of “learning.”
In the Fall of 2019, I attempted to design my classroom on Argument and Research as an Imagineering Workshop on the Life and Times of Living with Mass Incarceration. I add the additional “Life and Times of Living With” to the main course topic, Mass Incarceration, in order to highlight the conceptual framing which guided my teaching. The goal was to get my students to understand that Mass Incarceration, foundationally, is about the stripping away of Life and Time. The best way to mediate that message as a teacher to the student, for me, was through being a guiding element in the drama of Life and opening my students to material, tools, vocabulary and perspectives that might help them to feel what they are learning and learn more about what their feeling. This in hopes that they may be able to support intuitions with evidence, to subdue bias with perspective, and to share passion with knowledge.
In order to get my students to see this in a way that was honest and felt, I curated my classroom in such a way that may open my student’s eyes to the drama of Mass Incarceration as a drama happening on the stage of Life in which we all were currently in, sharing time (albeit in a different spatial moments) with the massively accumulating incarcerated populations of America. This helped me to appose meta-cognitive moments to immanently cognitive moments and to turn the classroom into a space for meta-cognition on teaching, studenting, life, time, and mass incarceration with writing as the primary instrumental method for wading through the various modalities of cognizing. For example, I titled my lesson plans teaching scripts, and started the first day of class in an ice-breaking circle with my students and I asked them the following question: “If you had a million dollars for the rest of your life, what would you do with your time?” This question opened the students up to sharing their passions, sincere reflections and verbal self-assessments on life, time, and writing ahead of the Multi-Modal Self-Assessment which created an atmosphere of openness relatively early on in the classroom that carried into the kind of vulnerable writing that I received from students about their struggles with academic research and writing as international students, as poetic students, as stem students and more.
Ebony Rose, a PhD Candidate in Urban Studies in Educational Policy at the University of Illinois in Chicago writes, in their essay entitled, “Neocolonial Mind Snatching: Sylvia Wynter and the Curriculum of Man,” for the Curriculum Inquiry that, “Black creative intellectuals’ instrument is the ability to deeply read, read deeply, and formulate questions. Through this reading and questioning we are able to write using our gift of language to ‘induce a new set of demands,’ refram-ing not only the field in which we work, but the entire epistemological framework that defines this “crisis” in Black studies (Spillers, 2003), and … the field of education, too.” A crucial aspect of my pedagogical praxis is this combination of prior knowledge and present questions. In other words, I attempt to bring the fullness of my “study” into the classroom as an instrument in producing questions within myself and alongside my students in order that we may imagine together “a new set of demands.” (Rose 26) Through framing my task as a teacher through the prism of the black creative intellectual rather than the Teacher, I attempt to explore a series of questions, possibilities, facts, evidences, and ideas alongside the other creatives with whom I have entered the stage of Life beside. Framing my teaching in this way is crucial in how I attempt to avoid what the critical pedagogical theorist Paulo Freire describes as the “banking model of teaching.” This “banking model” Friere states operates through an “assumption of a dichotomy between humans beings and the world: a person is merely in the world, not with the world or with others; the individual is a spectator, not re-creator.” (Freire 56)
On the first day of class, one notices that there is a wall between the teacher and the student that is the history of Teaching as such. The teacher is more of a Teacher than a teacher. The teacher is imagined into a role. The students are too. The teacher is there to deposit new information into the minds of the students. The students are there to be crafted into depositories of the teacher’s knowledge. The students are in class, there, ready to learn and be taught. The teacher is in class, there, ready to teach and instruct. My framework for teaching understands these prior knowledge conceptions of the role and function of the Teacher and the Student to be roles allocated by the stage of Representation. Part of the reason it was important to me to understand this for myself going into the classroom was because I had to be aware of the truth of the fact that I, myself, did not represent, for the majority of my students, their normative representation of a Teacher. As a Black male teaching in the University, being aware of this dissonance between what the student’s expect a Teacher to be and who I am made for productive pedagogical tension in the classroom. A productive pedagogical tension that worked to move the student’s past what they “known” and towards “knowing anew.” For example, I often opened up classroom sessions with contemporary black music, especially mumble rap and soundcloud rap music. While these two interlocking music genres are major components of my research interest, I ensured the students whenever I played the music that it wasn’t just for superficial personal interest but, that each song had a connection to the lesson of the day. One day the class was assigned to read Loic Wacquant’s essay “From Slavery to Mass Incarceration,” I introduced the lecture with lyrics from the song “How High” by the producer-rapper-artist Pierre Bourne and explained how these songs functioned as memoirs to the lived of experience of black people living in the Life and Times of Mass Incarceration.
I chose Pierre’s song because Pierre’s song alludes to being a college student and communicates how Mass Incarceration, criminality, and racism are structural issues that break into the lives of Black people in every sector of American society, even those sectors where they are considered to be “exceptional,” (which thereby means that it breaks into every sector of America society period). The students were able to relate to the experience of being a college student, even some of them jokingly alluding to having shared “similar experiences as Pierre” but it is then that I return to Wacquant to accentuate the structure which cohered this experience for Pierre. This challenged my students to think outside of their normative acceptance and experience of what gets represented as true and pushed them to ask new question and research more passionately. As one student, for their Context Project, went onto look into Wacquant’s Four Stages of “Peculiar Institutions” beside four different waves in Black Music.
The result was papers stemming from an interest in trying to understand “what else I’ve been lied to about,” as one student asked to me with a smile. For me, this was important as one of the course requirements was to teach metacognitive skills. I interpreted this requirement as “reflections upon reflections” and “reflections beyond their immediate classroom generated value.” Indeed, in this, I tried to be something a little more than a teacher, I tried to be a teacher that taught my student’s how to teach and (un)teach themselves and then, vicariously, to express in their writing and reflections what have learned to and for others. In addition, I tried to introduce my students to the way the world gets fabricated by expectation, replication and representations so that they may come to see the world as one that is sculpted by actors and actants, invented by engineers and artist, and constructed by humans and nonhumans. To see the World as a stage that they had a role to play in, not as subsidiary bystanders who needed to wait patiently to receive their degree to understand themselves as participating in the stage of Life and Representation, but as persons with a place, purpose and possibility to sculpt, invent and construct something onto this stage today that they might be proud of, that they might feel was worthy of their time and consideration.
The best way to say this is to say that I tried to open my student’s eyes to the artist within them. To initiate this opening was a process, one that was motivated by process pedagogy and notions of evolving over time through writing, re-writing, and re-flection. Following in the trend articulated by Chris Anson wherein “teachers everywhere were creating invention strategies to help students explore and expand their ideas…” (Anson 219), I attempted to bring into my classroom a cadre of videos, books, stories, in-class writing assignments and more to help expand the thinking and writing abilities of my students. Drama and performance, imagination and learning, reality and entanglement. For me, to learn is to become equipped with a fuller imagination, an effectual imagination, an imagination that can have an effect on reality and its necessary entanglements. In other words, learning happens at the intersections of science and art and imagination is reality at the intersection of science and art. In the words of the German Fluxus Performance Artist and Pedagogue, Josef Beuys, “Here my idea is to declare that art is the only possibility for evolution, the only possibility to change the situation in the world. But then you have to enlarge the idea of art to include the whole of creativity. And if you do that, it follows logically that every living being is an artist – an artist in the sense that he can develop his own capacity.” (Beuys 26) In the end, I hope that my classroom was a place where my students could come to have a complex meditation and interrogation on capacity and incapacity, life and restriction, time and its ticking, care and incarceration, writing and imagination, research and argument.
Anson, Chris. Process Pedagogy and Its Legacy. pp. 212–27.
Beuys, Joseph. Joseph Beuys in America. Edited by Carin Kuoni, Four Walls Eight Windows, 1990.
Bourne, Pierre. How High. Released June 2019, track 8 on Life of Pi’erre 4 (Sosshouse/Interscope Records)
Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Edited by Translated by Myra Bergman Ramos, Penguin, 1993.
Rose, Ebony. “Neocolonial Mind Snatching: Sylvia Wynter and the Curriculum of Man.” Curriculum Inquiry, vol. 49, no. 1, Taylor & Francis, 2019, pp. 25–43.