Teaching as the modeling of practice

by | Oct 22, 2010 | Teaching | 0 comments

I have been thinking a lot lately about teaching as a methodology. Not just because I am in the midst of teaching my first course at OCAD, but also because my dissertation research is focusing on the relationship between photographic representation and pedagogy, or the way that photography is uniquely positioned as a way of performing, modeling and transmitting particular subject positions, especially in the colonial and post-colonial context. The fact that I come from two families that suffer from the “teaching disease” (both my parents, as well as more aunts, uncles and grandparents than I can count, were/are public school or university teachers) is probably also a contributing factor.

All of these things have made my reading, listening and watching more attuned to the way that teaching is taught, or how people learn to become teachers, especially in the disciplines of visual arts and visual culture.

One approach to teaching, at the university level at least, that makes the most sense to me is the advice to approach your teaching as though you are modeling what it means to practice in your area of research or production. In other words, to teach in a way that represents your practice, whether as a researcher in a discipline, or as a professional in a field, and that puts your methods of researching, asking questions and sharing your knowledge into use in the classroom. This means not just using the vocabulary and terminology that is common to your discipline, but running discussions in a way that is representative of the discourses in your field and creating assignments that in some way relate to the kinds of publications that appear in your professional sphere.

At first, this struck me as a very practical way to approach the prep work I was doing to teach in a university classroom. It made assigning exhibition and book reviews, as well as research papers, make much more sense as not just a way of evaluating students’ interests, level of knowledge and growth, but as a way to practice the practice they were preparing for.

But the idea of teaching-as-a-model-for-the-discipline also seems a bit dangerous. If I were to literally model what “normally” happens in my discipline, would that mean only teaching a canonical list of artists who were mostly white, male and dead? Would it mean finding ways to show the students what it is like to have precarious, non-permanent work? Or providing them opportunities to discover the pleasures and pitfalls of networking at awkward social events and openings?

I guess it could mean modeling some of these things, since they are part of the practical realities of working in art history as an academic discipline and in galleries and publications in the world of art. And in some ways, I think conveying those realities is an important part of teaching. Last weekend, at the Universities Art Association of Canada annual conference in Guelph, James Elkins delivered a keynote lecture on “Kunstwissenschaft and Art History, Two Forgotten Subjects,” where he dealt with some of the issues at stake in the teaching of art history and the teaching of visual studies in the university classroom, focusing particularly on the tension between traditional modes of art history and slightly “newer” forms of visual culture studies and visual studies. Though that debate is one that has been hashed out many times, Elkins made two points that hadn’t occurred to me before:

1) That visual studies, as it is currently framed, is associated with a democratizing gesture of inclusiveness that can accommodate a huge range of topics and theorists. This makes it appealing, to students, instructors, universities and donors, because of its relationship to popular culture and its embrace of high- and low-brow cultural forms. However, this also makes it a vague discipline that is difficult to pin down and even more difficult to critique and improve from within. And, like any discipline, visual studies does not accept “everything and anything” as objects of study and to continue to believe that is the case is deceptive for both students, who have to eventually write term papers about something that will fit into the purview of the field, and for instructors, who are often faced with increasingly unclear job descriptions and course outlines.

2) That this discrepancy between how the field of visual studies is talked about, or promised to be practiced through the way we teach in the classroom, and how it is actually practiced in the field through publications, symposia and exhibitions (or other forms of cultural production) is bad teaching practice. Not just because it is misleading to assign projects or assignments that currently have no venue in the field (as Elkins pointed out through several charts and graphs, the most popular topics in art history and visual culture journals are still the same group of 50 white, European dead guys, from Da Vinci through to Degas); but, perhaps more importantly, because it is dangerous to not draw students’ attention to the still-not-settled and not-yet-acknowledged disciplinary biases, blindspots and intentional oversights that accompany work in visual studies (as they do in any discipline).

So this is the tension I am now trying to wrestle with: how to teach as a modeling of practice that identifies and acknowledges limitations, both practical and theoretical, but in a way that still encourages students to experiment, to court failure and to contest some of these limitations. Especially in the field of art and culture, where to produce or to publish is often to attempt to change what is “normal” in a practice.

I haven’t got it figured out yet, but it’s a work-in-progress.