THE ART OF SCHOOLING
MARNIE DEAN, a contemporary Australian artist, is a graduate of Griffith University, Queensland College of Art (QCA) in Australia, where she has previously taught. Dean curated a collateral project for the first edition of the Kochi Muziris Biennale, Cochin, India, in 2012/13. She also curated the exhibition Mythopoetic: Woman Artists from Australia and India mounted at Queensland College of Art, Griffith University, in 2013 in both QCA Galleries and GUAG (Griffith University Art Gallery). Dean, a widely regarded art scholar, has published extensively in international art journals. She is presently in India on an extended residency. In an interaction with K.G. SREENIVAS, she reflected on the intersections of teaching and teaching art.
There have been serious debates surrounding how and what we have been teaching in classrooms the world over. The hoary Chalk & Talk and the didactic pedagogy thereof continue to rule classrooms. How do we (un)wield the chalk so to say?
I like to create an atmosphere where students feel part of the learning exchange. So they don’t feel talked at or down to and they feel safe to raise critical questions and develop knowledge through interaction. This can be achieved simply by the way the classroom is organised. I often have students sitting in a circle with me in the circle, this creates a good atmosphere to take in theory and encourage discussion.
When I deliver curriculum to a group of students I like to consider different learning styles (some students are more visual, some kinaesthetic/tactile, some need to listen and others learn by speaking), and I try to develop different methodologies to deliver information so it can be experienced through different channels or modes. Experiential learning is really the only way to learn about Fine Art (which is a practical subject) and I have found that when I have taught art history, the same methods for delivering information that are more ‘hands on’ are also beneficial for theory based subjects.
Perhaps, the chalk can’t be broken in a manner of speaking. The chalk is a useful tool to draw, to illustrate, and connect the dots as it were. But does the ‘talk’ render the learning experiential, learner-centred, collaborative, transformational, and one laden with more questions than answers? To extend the analogy, how would you wield your brush as a teacher-artist?
When I teach students they have already gone through a selection process and been identified with talent in visual art. So firstly the fact that they have talent is assumed. I mention this because I don’t believe you can teach talent, it’s something innate, I believe you can foster talent and inspire passion in students and I think that is the key in teaching Visual Arts. I use my own passion in the classroom, I allow my passion to drive my delivery of information. This can be achieved by showing examples of other artists’ work by visiting museums and galleries with students (going outside the classroom) and by sharing my own practice. In terms of formal teaching, Visual Art and Fine Art is a very visual and practice-based subject, so lessons are centred around teaching students both conceptual/research and practical skills so that they may produce work with me present and I can guide them about the direction in which they are going.
Sometimes more formal exercises apply like with life drawing when students are learning to draw from a live model. In this instance I may draw myself to give an example of perspective or foreshortening. But outside of art theory and history the chalk and board is not dominant in the delivery of art knowledge, experience is key.
Notwithstanding the seductions of technology and the newer modes of learning — and indeed teaching — has the widening intersection of pedagogy and technology, helped in a deepening of an organic, visceral, life-linked, learning, one that fosters creative and critical thinking, empathy, and a deeper social connectedness. Does it then call for a radical curriculum design and delivery?
This is a contentious issue. Teaching at the level of university lectures are often followed by tutorials. Tutorials are traditionally more interactive for students and they can ask questions about the knowledge they have been given; the role of the tutorial is to integrate knowledge. I was teaching at a university, that for financial reasons, elected to put all of the tutorials online for students and teachers were taken out of the equation. The tutorials became self-driven by the students on an online portal they were required to complete in order to pass the subject. The rate of attrition went down 20 percent when online tutorials were introduced over two years at that institution!
However, I believe that technology cannot replace experiential learning but can be a tool to have the experience in a shared environment with other students and teachers present. Students today are hard-wired for technology, it is essential that technology be used as a methodology of delivering knowledge and of developing creativity. The role of technology is intersectional and cross-disciplinary in art today, it’s a fundamental part of visual and popular culture so it must be incorporated as a tool for developing and sharing creative knowledge.
In the light of the above, there has been — as is with most human endeavours — a quest for a holy grail that, not surprisingly, remains elusive or perhaps non-existent, but is expected to help transform education through technology. Technology is indeed a force multiplier in the learning process, but in the light of clear and present evidence (high degrees of boredom, attrition, learner disengagement, dissociation, and sometimes anti-social behaviour), how do we unteach, or shall we say not teach?
The social aspect of technology, the shared platform has been under-utilised in a teaching environment and/or a classroom environment. The way we develop knowledge has now fundamentally changed, the digital age introduced the development of knowledge outside of binary environments and the network and plurality now needs to be incorporated at all levels of information sharing and teaching.
Children today are growing up with exposure to cell phones and tablets from an early age and they inherently understand the multiplicity of technological environments, their brains are wired for it. So the Holy Grail I don’t have an answer for, but I believe we need to understand the way the digital age has changed our brains and our processing of information and knowledge. Epistemologies are no longer binary they are fundamentally plural and when as teachers we understand this — maybe a Holy Grail for the integration of technology in teaching will emerge. I don’t have a definitive answer.
For an artist is there an inversion of the teaching process and all the assumptions thereof? Do you as artist-teacher become collaborator-practitioner in the art room?
I wouldn’t describe this as an inversion, rather, as a shared passion and yes absolutely my role is analogous to a collaborator and a practitioner. As practitioner I have been honing my skills longer and have real art-world experience which I bring with me to the classroom. I try to impart this to my students, while fostering their individuality and personal interests.
There has been considerable discussion around artist-led pedagogy that has been seen by many educators, especially in the art circle, as a ‘powerful focus for all kinds of applied skills and learning’. How could one transfer this element from art room to classroom?
For me there is no distinction between classroom and art room. I believe the practice based and conceptual theories of artists help my students to navigate the art world firstly (which is its own beast) and to integrate knowledge. If we can use and adopt these theories as methodologies to deliver knowledge then it will be easier for students to make the transition from being students to being practitioners themselves.
Besides pushing the frontiers of your creativity, do you view your art practice as a process of conceptual enquiry and of making socially relevant meaning where the learner herself actively collaborates in the process of applied learning?
My art practice is feminist based and is a response to theorist Donna Haraway’s imploration in her ‘A Cyber Manifesto’, for women artists to create new mythologies. I re-write mythologies belonging to my mixed heritage that promote the emancipation of women and more recently I have had an interest in post-humanism, so animals too.
Haraway believed that women artists would create the new archetypes that would infiltrate popular culture and slowly influence societal norms. In my practice I attempt the do this both as an artist and as an emerging curator (I have curated several feminist exhibitions exploring the relationship between women, mythology, and popular culture). This activism is a reflection of my person which I bring as my passion to the classroom, I do not actively promote this agenda to students, that’s not my role as a teacher.
So as an artist, teaching-collaborating was perhaps more to do with interrogating the concerns that worry you rather than simply as a maker of images?
In my role as a teacher my agenda is to deliver curriculum and help students be ready to enter the art world. The concerns of my own practice are quite separate to my teaching role. My students have been aware about my practice and as I mentioned before, I believe my passion for my own practice (which includes my conceptual and feminist concerns) is part of this. I want to encourage the individuality of my students, I do not want to create clones. I want to inspire students to follow their own truths with passion, drive, and commitment and I try to be an example of that.
Finally, where does teaching stop and learning begin?
I don’t see teaching and learning as rigid and separate entities. In the transitional space between students and a teacher the flow and exchange of learning and teaching creates knowledge, not only for the students, but also for the teacher.
1. It is essential that technology be used as a methodology of delivering knowledge and of developing creativity. The role of technology is intersectional and cross-disciplinary in art today, it’s a fundamental part of visual and popular culture so it must be incorporated as a tool for developing and sharing creative knowledge.
2. My role is analogous to a collaborator and a practitioner. As practitioner I have been honing my skills longer and have real art-world experience which I bring with me to the classroom. I try to impart this to my students, while fostering their individuality and personal interests.
3. I believe my passion for my own practice (which includes my conceptual and feminist concerns) is part of this. I want to encourage the individuality of my students, I do not want to create clones. I want to inspire students to follow their own truths with passion, drive, and commitment and I try to be an example of that.