Thursday, October 20, 2005

Transcendent Only When I Want To Be

I am a little late in getting this up but I have observed something in my TAship that is I think an illustration of bad pedagogy or unfortunate politics within the classroom.

As this class has progressed through the ancient cultures the students have seen some less than typical images. One of those especially is exotic imagery from Greek, Chinese, and Indian cultures. I was not surprised by talk of the Kama Sutra in Hindu culture. Often times in Western centered courses and text books a non western culture will be fetishized. Or as Gardenier, a fellow student in Doing Democracy stated, feminize a culture that is non western. The lecturer of this class did not do this. He showed multiple cultures and their images of exotic imagery not to make it exotic but just as another aspect of the society. He made no apologies for this and did not tell the students that this was not normal practice in the academic art history world.

I suppose this is one place where we might disagree on pedagogies. I think this was a wonderful way of discussing this type of imagery but I think the students needed to be made aware that this was not "normal" subject matter and that there are places, classes, and academic arenas where cultures are not studied in a fair or equal way. However this is not the issue I want to focus on just yet.

The class is now studying religious art including Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. They are also beginning the so called "Dark Ages" and the crusades. It has been exciting to see the teacher include Japan and China in this religion discussions and so at times we also look at the religions taking place there and compare and contrast them but never make value judgments. Unfortunately this is where the power of the lecturer goes overlooked. In talking only about Christianity the lecturer keeps repeating the phrase, "Remember kids, I am just an alien watching from above and talking to you about what I see, this is not about beliefs." He says this I am sure to avoid arguments or students who do not believe in Christianity taking offense to the subject matter. However, It seems as though this teacher makes very political choices within the classroom, ie the inclusion of exotic materials. However, when it comes to religion, an obviously political and heated topic, specifically Christianity, he is a passive observer on high talking neutrally about a subject so as not to offend anyone.

To quote once again an over quoted title by Howard Zinn, "You Can't be Neutral on a Moving Train" In another book Zinn also says, "citizens thinking outside the boundaries and transcending the given wisdom." (Zinn 29) He says this to artists responding to war times but I think it holds true to educators as well. This teacher I think often looks outside the boundaries of conventional art historical wisdom or teaching. And at times I think the teacher looks to transcend the given wisdom of what to teach and how. However when the teacher disregards his political choices in showing images he does what much of academic art history does. He denies power structures, he hides them instead of bringing them to the students and letting them not only see that these issues exist but also as in Paul Friere's method of teaching suggest solutions to the traditional western art history canon.

Now to code this experience in terms of my own pedagogy in the classroom I look at Kinchloe and Steinberg who suggest that teachers, "Must understand where they are located in the web of reality - in relation to the various axes of race, class and gender power. Thus the critical multiculturalist teacher is a scholar who spends a lifetime studying the pedagogical and its concern with the intersection of power, identity and knowledge. Indeed, such a teacher gains the ability to delineate the ways in which knowledge is produced and transmitted." (Kinchloe Steinberg 29) I have, I think, been mostly upfront about religion as my bias. I am a Christian and much of what I do and how I study and think about revisionist art history is tied to that one fact. Any inclusion or exclusion of religious materials or images is for me a political act in the classroom. I know I would not show my students religious image to evangalize them. I think that is what my TA teacher is afraid of. But because I am mining my past and am aware of how this knowledge is produced within the small scope of me and the larger scope of the field of art history I am building a pedagogy where I will not need to be transcendent whenever I want to be to avoid conflict. Instead I will need to work to transmit the knowledge in a way that highlights its political message and allows students to observe the political nature of the subject matter. This is not safe work and as Annette Henry says, "The classroom is not a safe place." (Henry, 2)

Henry, Annette. (1994) There are no safe places: pedagogy as powerful and dangerous terrain. Action in Art Education Vol. XV No. 4 Winter.

Kinchloe, J & Steinberg, S. (1997). Changing multiculturalism. Buckingham, U.K: Open University Press

Zinn, H. (2003). Artists in times of war. New York: Seven Stories Press

1 comment:

Bad Andy said...

Its seems to me to be both, but I am not sure its entirely the teacher's fault. I have been in too many classes where students proclaim or act in a way as if they were experts in their field treating the thoughts and ideas of others (including teachers) in disregard (even disrespect). I am not trying to say that these students are not experts. Let the experts speak!.. but not in away that discourages further discussion. Perhaps it is the result of poor classroom structure. As students who are put into arenas of minimal power, we exert our power by demonstrating what we already know or by deconstructing the ideas at hand. There is nothing wrong with breaking apart the ideas of others past or present, but what then? What if no conclusions are made what if no constructive ideas are brought forth? Do we just disregard the subject matter altogether? Maybe it would be a waste of time? But I have to agree with you... let them be offended... let them be aware of what they are seeing in the context of which they are seeing it. He should be honest/fair and say "this is not about my beliefs, but are about the beliefs of those who created such works and for whom they were created."