Teaching and Gongfu

I’m teaching five sections of a General Education Introduction to Philosophy course this semester and I’m grateful for this 功夫 (gongfu/kung fu) practice. I am revisiting Peimin Ni’s writings about Confucius and to him I am grateful and will make liberal references.

Before I decided to go to college I was fortunate to study Shaolin Dao with Master Michael Reid and his teacher, Gary Grooms.  It was in that martial context that I was first told that “kung fu” doesn’t refer to fighting but means something like “time invested.” I credit the training I received from Master Reid and my peers with my future academic successes (such as they are).

Peimin Ni helps us understand the phrase even more:

“Originally used to describe human labor during the third and fourth centuries, the term gongfu was later developed into a locus from which a cluster of meanings emerged, referring to the time and effort spent on something, the ability to accomplish intended results, and the result of such effort and abilities. Consequently it came to be used broadly for all the arts of life that require cultivated abilities and effective skills, be it the arts of cooking, speaking, dancing, dealing with human relationships, or the art of living in general.” (Ni, xii)

“Every Day Is a Good Day,”
Fukushima Keido Roshi, ca 2003.

Given my large teaching load, I have had course design anxieties. I’ve been trying to get my classes more accessible because accessibility is a federal right and I am encountering a large number of students so I am statistically more likely to work with folks who will need accommodations. But, really, everyone benefits from a more intentionally accessible course. My course is primarily concerned with habits, especially habits of citizenship (I bookend the semester with Danielle S. Allen’s book, Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education).

As I have pursued a more accessible course design I am encountering unforeseen benefits from working with the accommodations that my students request.  Specifically I am having to think more clearly about what is important and how I can best communicate that.

The class I’ve built treats writing as an iterative process, the assignments are repetitive and provide opportunities for the students to practice metacognitive skills (i.e. they’re learning about how they learn, thinking about how they read, writing about how they write).

For example, before each class meeting my students are required to have read primary source material and to have generated at least one well-written question about that material so that we can discuss the reading in class.

To help my students craft their questions I first assign them to read, and subsequently bring to every class meeting, Kyla Wazana Tompkins’ handout “Some Notes On How To Ask A Good Question About Theory That Will Provoke Conversation And Further Discussion From Your Colleagues.”

Writing one question for each class is a low-stakes assignment that encourages my students to critically engage with the assigned readings, rather than riffing on a theme they’ve noticed in their reading and asking questions that might make sense to them but tend to lead class discussion into areas that aren’t necessarily useful for the class as a whole.

I then require that my students submit a reading outline in which I ask them to paraphrase, in one or two sentences, each paragraph of an assigned reading and then write a sentence or two in which they tell me where the author’s argument “clicked” for them.

When I introduce this assignment to my students I tell them that this is an assignment designed to get them thinking about how they read and retain the information they are reading. I tell them that this assignment will benefit them if they practice this kind of note-taking, no matter what the course they are in and regardless of their major (although they should all want to be Philosophy majors). The assignment contributes 10% of their final grade, so it’s not a massive project but it’s also not a trifle.

Like this metacognitive reading outline, I follow-up this assignment with an argument outline wherein my students practice tracing out the premises/evidence/reasons/presuppositions that support the arguments made by the authors in their assigned readings. If philosophy has a method, (of course it does and I juxtapose the methods used in science and religion to clarify the differences) this would be it, I tell them.

If in my teaching I only went up to the lectern and spoke about my opinions and recited my (granted, hard-earned) knowledge, I don’t think I’d be doing my students, my university, my state (I teach at a state university), my profession, or myself any favors. I’d be going through the motions but education can be a transformative process when teaching and learning happen in the appropriate manner. In this way I am thinking about what Cheng Yi (1033-1107) said during the Song dynasty, “Nowadays people no longer know how to read. When they read the Analects, for instance, they are the same kind of people before they read the book and after they read the book. This is no different from not having read the book.”

Zhu Xi resonates with Cheng here when he states:

“In reading the Analects and the Mencius one should not merely aim at understanding the theory and the meanings of the text. One should make careful reflection and put the teachings into practice [….] If a reader can relate the sages’ sayings to his own person and examine them through his own embodied practice, his effort will surely not be spent in vain. Every day will bring him the result (gong 功) of the day. If one only takes the books as collections of sayings, it would be merely the learning of the mouth and the ears.” (Zhu, Du Lunyu Mengzi Fa, 3)

The work I’m asking my students to do means I must do a kind of work that that is really interesting to me and puts me into a relationship with the readings and my office that is often unexpected and rewarding.

I am really grateful to my students for meeting me like this, so that we’re both putting in the effort, we’re practicing a mode of gongfu.

Atlanta as a Site for Critical Inquiry for Contemporary Art Students

Below is the abstract for what I’ll be presenting at the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning’s Annual Conference on Scholarly Teaching in May.

I’ve written about these matters previously, for Burnaway/ArtsATL and for Art Papers. These ideas are also a significant part of my essay published in Dawn Keetley’s edited volume, “We’re All Infected” Essays on AMC’s The Walking Dead and the Fate of the Human.

I love talking about these issues (I’ve talked about these things at the Zombethics Symposium, for example) and would love to come talk with you and your folks, please contact me and let’s book a visit. You can see my upcoming events here.

Andy Warhol 129 Die in Jet (1962) acrylic and pencil on canvas
Museum Ludwig, Cologne © 2011 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Rheinisches Bildarchiv Köln

In this presentation I will discuss how I incorporate Atlanta Studies into my ART 3910 Critical Thinking Through Writing course, “Issues in Contemporary Art” curriculum. June 3, 2017, will mark the fifty-fifth anniversary of the doomed Air France Flight 007 in which 106 of Atlanta’s leading arts patrons died at Orly Airport outside of Paris. Only two people out of 132 would walk away from that crash. It was the worst air disaster in history to that point. The impact of this tragedy on Atlanta was enormous. The accident left thirty-one children orphaned, and the broader metro area continues to grapple with this tragedy today. The most obvious result of the Orly explosion is the creation of the Atlanta Memorial Arts Center, renamed the Woodruff Arts Center in 1982. Robert W. Woodruff, the Coca-Cola magnate and future namesake of the enormous cultural center on Peachtree Street, was initially guided by the head of his foundation and former president of Oglethorpe University, Dr. Philip Weltner, to build an arts complex in Piedmont Park. This would have been a natural choice at the time because Piedmont Park had become the site of the annual Arts Festival. The plan to finance the building of this cultural center, however, failed to pass a public referendum in August of 1962, in no small part due to the charged racial atmosphere. There were two reasons for this failed referendum. First, the strongest link between the Atlanta Arts Alliance and the city’s Cultural Needs Committee, Del Paige, had died in the wreckage at Orly. Second, Woodruff insisted on donating the initial $4 million anonymously. The white power structure of the time allowed a whisper campaign suggesting that the mysterious donor was actually the family of millionaire Alonzo Herndon, a “negro” family.

Not only does Atlanta enjoy the privilege of hosting the largest collecting art institution in the region as a result of this tragedy, but the Orly disaster has also had a significant impact on the development of contemporary art across the globe. Andy Warhol found an image of the Orly disaster on the front page of the New York Mirror. This image was the basis for Warhol’s 129 Die in Jet (Plane Crash), and it was the cataclysmic loss of Atlanta’s most active arts patrons that launched Warhol’s Death and Disaster paintings (in 2007, his Green Car Crash III would fetch $71.7 million at a Christie’s auction). Contemporary Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn stated in the pages of ARTFORUM that it was viewing Warhol’s 129 Die in Jet in 1978 that made him aware that he needed to be an artist. “It was the first time in my life that art had an impact on me, the first time I was directly in dialogue with it,” he said, “129 Die in Jet changed my life.” It is my aspiration that learning about and critically engaging with the events surrounding this terrible disaster will also change the lives of my students.

Discussing Rancière’s “Contemporary Art and the Politics of Aesthetics”

As I mentioned in a previous post, I am teaching a couple of sections of a Critical Thinking through Writing (CTW) course called, “Critical Issues in Contemporary Art.”

I have been using the edited volume from Zoya Kocur and Simon Leung, Theory in Contemporary Art Since 1985, and find it excellent. I am slightly embarrassed to admit I chose this book because I was hired and immediately had to place my book order for the upcoming semester and since I had studied with a number of the contributors in this volume, I figured it would be good enough. Of course, it is an excellent volume. It comprises a diverse roster of authors and provides the students with “coin of the realm” theories and writings that have tracked the development of what is called contemporary art.

What follows below are my responses to some of the writings my students provided after reading an essay, “Contemporary Art and the Politics of Aesthetics” by my former teacher, Jacques Rancière.

I think Rancière is here relying on the reader to keep all senses of the word “aesthetic” in their mind when they read the term. Aesthetics is a mode of philosophy that is concerned with sense making, how beauty is revealed, and how the world is ordered to generate meaning. It’s a heavy word.

A student asked, “how can something that is said to be free and expressive be categorized,” I think we have to reexamine how we understand what a category is.

A category is a class or division of people or things that share a common characteristic. Notice two words here: division and common.

Rancière discusses art as a partition (which is a synonym for division) of the sensible.

Said another way, art making is a practice that creates a sense of community among a group of people that can make sense of the objects created through art making practices.

That is to say, that this community of art practitioners share in common this characteristic: making art objects.

How is it possible that something that is expressive can be categorized? I hope we can see from the above, that a group of people that are practitioners of expressiveness can be categorized as artists. They can be placed in that category.

So, how can they be free and categorized? What does it mean to be free is a big question, but I think I can give a quick orientation to how Rancière (with whom I studied) might be thinking about freedom.

Let’s consider the working artist. They are free to make whatever they like because they are an artist, we expect an artist to generate art objects that are novel on some register. This working artist might insist that they cannot be constrained if they are to make their best art objects. To this we as a society generally agree: artists and parents and any-ol’-body is supposed to be free to do whatever they like in the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness. We like to think we live in a free country and so our decisions are autonomous ones because we are supposedly not being coerced or manipulated into acting on the decisions we arrive at.

Because we have that first sense of freedom, we are free to sell our labor (as artists, as baristas, as shoe salesmen, etc.) in the free market.

But in the “free market” we have to recognize that the laborer’s freedom has an unexpected limit: the laborer is free to labor, but they are free from being able to determine the value of their labor. The value of an artist’s works are more often than not beyond their ability to determine and must instead rely on the gallerist or the benefactor to demonstrate the exchange value of the art object the artist has created. I might think that my 3.5 year son’s drawings are priceless treasures, but my neighbor my agree that there is no price worth paying for them, they are simply junk drawings.

Here we return to the definition and note that a category is a class or a division of people or things that share a common characteristic.

Laborers, whether artists, or unskilled folks form a class in modern and contemporary societies. Unlike the managers of or the owners of the means of production, laborers share a mode of being free to work but being free from all the profit of their laboring.

I hope that we can see how it is possible to be free and expressive and also be of a category.

Another student asked if it’s necessary for artists to work against consensus, another term Rancière uses in a particular way for a particular effect.

Rancière has written about the shortcomings of consensus in the context of what an emancipatory democracy could look like. The problem with consensus is a problem of either representation or repression.

In the second sense, consensus looks like mob rule: might makes right. If we on this side of an issue have more people than the other side, then we get to do whatever we like because we’ve got a majority of people on our side and we’ve formed this alliance in a manner that we call consensus. But I don’t think that it’s really consensual, is it? It’s not that both sides of the issue are consenting to a decision, so much as they are agreeing to let the other side have their way because the minority is afraid of how the majority might abuse them.

In the other sense of consensus we have the familiar problem of representative democracy: the people are told they are free to pursue their life, liberty, and happiness, but to maintain order those same free people must sacrifice their freedom of decision making to elected representatives. This isn’t really consensual either is it? We, very frequently, elect people to serve us as representatives, but then those people do whatever they feel is the best for the most people that elected them. At best, these representatives would show a plurality of compromised responses to problems that we would have strong opinions about.

So, against consensus, Rancière posits “dissensus.” Dissensus is not about masking over differences of opinions, say, but instead insisting that those differences be privileged. Think of that old chestnut that school children in the US are taught: that America is a melting pot. The melting pot theory holds that over time the differences between people will breakdown, just like in a beef stew in which everything starts to taste like beef and potatoes and everything loses its texture. That would be the consensus model. The dissensus model would be more like a stirfry dish in which a variety of very different tastes and textures are brought together (sweet, salty, sour, etc.) to create a unique dish that wouldn’t be possible without all those differences being maintained.

Another student asked about the utility of the phrase “contemporary art.”

I think part of the reason for generating these categories is so that we have some way of typifying and making sense of the ways in which artists and the art world are operating today. The way that artists and the art world operate today is different, in significant ways, from how artists and the art world operated 50, 100, and 200 years ago.

If we don’t create some rubrics for measuring that difference, then we run the risk of not being able to speak specifically about those differences.

In this regard, Alberro’s “Periodising Contemporary Art” and Rancière’s essays are interesting for us as we try to make sense of why people talk about “Contemporary Art” but what we mean by “Contemporary Art” is still being decided.

For Rancière aesthetics and politics are two objects of social life that are often discussed but not well understood.

Aesthetics is an activity that is concerned with meaning making, a way of rearranging the world such that other meanings are possible.

Politics is an activity that is concerned with order making, a way of maintaining the world such that other ways of being in the world are excluded.

For Rancière politics, in the sense that we typically mean it—like being a political activist—rarely ever happens. Instead, most of the time what we see is only the maintenance of the status quo, which is what police do: they maintain order.

Politics, when combined with aesthetics, can produce new social orders, like what SNCC and the Movement accomplished here during the 1950s and through the 70s.

What I Love about Teaching Critical Thinking through Writing

This semester I am teaching an undergraduate course on critical issues in contemporary art. This class is the first course of a two-course sequence of “Critical Thinking through Writing” (CTW) classes that all majors at our R1 Research University have to develop for their students.

I love teaching these CTW courses because this course is often the first theory-intensive curriculum these students have undertaken. Although that means that many of the students I work with are frustrated with the materials we engage with, it’s also a course that generates a lot of self-reflection and critical conversations.

This course is also deeply satisfying for me because of the students I work with. The majority of the students I work with are nonwhite, and many are from working class families, and are first-generation families. Our university has improved its graduation rate by twenty-two percent over the last decade through the implementation of a variety of advising programs. Not only has the overall graduation rate improved, but our university now graduates more black students each year than any other U.S. college.

That I get to introduce a range of philosophical perspectives and theories to a group of students who are not theory-oriented is a challenge I relish. Not only are they often not theory-oriented, but because they are artists, they are also often not inclined to express their thinking through text, preferring other media as their primary mode of expression. I welcome this challenge because this is my opportunity to make what is assumed to be an abstract and strictly academic affair into something applicable to a student’s lived experience and directly contributing to their aspirations.

That I am also in the position to encourage people of color and from working class homes to “do theory” is a rare opportunity as well because these students are often absent from philosophy programs in graduate school and then in professorial roles. It is in our class that we find more robust vocabularies for describing our lived experiences, for articulating our aspirations, and in this class we often see for the first time how the work we do in our city interacts with a global system of exchange. And it is in this context that I am able to “tarry, to linger with the ways in which [I] perpetuate a racist society, the ways in which [I am] racist,” as my fellow Atlantan, George Yancy has recently counseled.

This is not to say that I lead a struggle session (批鬥會) with my students. Rather, I am presented, daily, with the opportunity to expand myself beyond the habitual practices of sociality that have historically enabled a host of iniquities to persists among us. Core to my Confucian (or Ruist 儒學) practice is the application of what I have studied and moral self-cultivation through wholehearted engagement with my community. Cultivating critical writing skills with students has been an exceptional mode of self-exploration and -expansion for me in this regard.

As a longtime resident of Atlanta and someone with great affection for the area, I feel a special obligation to be true to the work of the people who fought for equality in my country because this is the home of SNCC, of Dr. King, and it is from here that so much of the Civil Rights Movement radiates.

In our Critical Thinking through Writing course we learn about audiences, we learn about and discuss the limits of representation, we grapple with the differences between democracy and republic, and we find ways to connect our interior lives to the world-out-there in a manner that only writing can. Writing operates in a way that neither speaking, nor painting, nor manipulating other materials simply cannot. In writing we find ourselves as someone greater than we had anticipated.